Human Rights

California to Force-Feed Prisoners Who Are Waging Hunger Strike Against Cruel Treatment

Rather than address the demands of the hunger strikers, prison officials have decided to override basic human rights.

Photo Credit: Gregory

Hundreds of California prisoners have been starving themselves since July 8 in protest of inhumane policies and treatment in the solitary confinement spaces called Security Housing Units (SHU). The prisoners want an end to what they call cruel collective punishments and crackdowns that they say occur under the facade of  "stopping gang activities."

Solitary confinement in California prisons can last for decades, and protest organizers argue that the practice targets certain groups for unjust, disproportionate reasons. The prisoners are also demanding access to education, healthcare and more nutritious food.

Rather than address the demands of the hunger strikers, California prison officials have decided to override basic human rights and begin force-feeding the inmates.

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During negotiations from July to October 2011 with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and California Gov. Jerry Brown, CDCR acknowledged that the prisoners' five core demands were reasonable. Prisoners agreed to suspend the current hunger strike in order to give the CDCR time to implement “timely and meaningful changes of real substance."

When the required changes had not been implemented by February of this year, the protest organizers announced in an open notice to “Governor Jerry Brown; CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard; and all other parties of interest,” that since CDCR had failed to hold up its end of the agreement, the hunger strike of two years prior would be re-initiated along with other peaceful protest efforts on July 8.

When this year's strike began it included nearly 30,000 of the 133,000 inmates throughout the California prison system.

After seven weeks, nearly 130 inmates continue to refuse meals.

As at least 46 of thoseinmates still haven’t consumed anything but water and vitamins for almost two months, they are on the brink of death. In response, prison officials appealed to U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson to allow them to force the prisoners to eat.

In a decision that contradicts a California state law explicitly prohibiting the force-feeding of prisoners, the federal judge granted the authorities permission to force-feed the inmates. Judge Henderson ordered that the state can feed all prisoners, including those who signed a "do not resuscitate" statement.

The officials argued in court that prisoners signed the DNR directives under gang coercion. Prisoners and their allies say claims of coercion have yet to be proven, and were “levied by prison authorities in attempt to break the hunger strike, dehumanize inmates and justify cruel collective punishment.”

Prison officials call the force-feeding process "refeeding," which could entail sticking feeding tubes through incapacitated inmates' noses into their stomachs.

The Associated Press reported: “Prison officials said Monday that inmates are free to consume a liquid diet, but will be counted as having ended their hunger strike if they consume anything more than water, vitamins and electrolytes.”

April M. Short is a freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness and social justice. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor.