Human Rights

The Plight of California's Prisoners: Hunger Strike, Sterilization and Valley Fever

While we complain of 100 degree heat and take solace in our air-conditioned homes, prisoners across the country are suffering—and not just for their crimes.

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Editor's Update: Mediators working on behalf of California prison hunger strikers met on Friday with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeffrey Beard to make their case, coming on the heels of nearly 100 family members of hunger strikers visiting the Capitol Tuesday, where they presented a petition signed by over 60,000 people demanding negotiations with hunger strikers to Governor Brown's office. In Washington on Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to delay a court order for California to release nearly 10,000 inmates by year’s end to improve conditions in state prisons. The court rejected a plea from Gov. Jerry Brown who has argued that prison conditions have substantially improved and that circumstances have changed – this despite the massive actions of 30,000 prisoners who initially participated in the largest rejection of these official arguments in history.

It’s been two years since Governor Jerry Brown was court ordered to fix California’s ailing prisons and the situation is still life-threatening and possibly illegal.

It's been all over the papers and many bloggers are tackling the horrendous conditions in California. A prison system that in 2011 was ordered by the Supreme Court to figure out what to do with 30,000 people who because of the system's overcrowding were suffering "cruel and unusual punishment."

As Laura Gottesdiener wrote in The Huffington Post, "The state’s 140,000 inmates, jam-packed into 33 prisons only built to hold 80,000 individuals...commit suicide at double the national inmate average, experience unprecedented rates of lock-downs, receive inadequate medical treatment and sometimes live in continuous fear of violence."

In early July, the infuriating news broke that between 2006-2010, doctors who were under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates without anyone's approval. Corey G. Johnson, writing for the Center for Investigative Reporting wrote that these doctors were paid $147,460 to perform the procedure and that "at least 148 women received tubal ligations...during those five years -- and there are perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s, according to state documents and interviews."

And it doesn't get better for prisoners, or for that matter, for any of us who care about how we treat those behind bars. California holds nearly 12,000 people in solitary confinement at a cost of over $60 million per year. The prisoners recognize that they have committed crimes but they are suffering under extreme isolation. U.S. News and World Report called these cells "living tombs."

I wrote about Massachusetts' current attempts and need to get rid of these dangerous solitary conditions recently online at Boston Magazine. And Texas prisoners have been known to die in 130 degree heat, reported The Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights, a prisoner-run newsletter.

One of the best websites about the plight of California, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, says about the state’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU), "The cells have no windows, and no access to fresh air or sunlight. The United Nations condemns the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days as torture, yet many people in California state prisons have been encaged in solitary for 10 to 40 years."

The hunger strike began on July 8, when more than 30,000 prisoners in 15 prisons refused meals. They are about to enter their third week. As reported on Democracy Now!, about 2,500 prisoners from across the state are still on “indefinite hunger strike,” calling for Governor Jerry Brown and the CDCR to meet their demands about the inhumane conditions they are suffering.

But as Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost of Prisons Project said in an email, California officials are trying in any way they can to discredit the strike. Brown has not been moved to act. Strikers' lawyers are not being allowed into the prisons.

Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and lead attorney representing Pelican Bay prisoners in a lawsuit challenging long-term solitary, appeared on Democracy Now!. He said 

If you’re found guilty of murdering somebody in prison, you’re given a definite term, which can be no more than five years in solitary. If you, on the other hand, are simply labeled by some gang investigator as a member of some gang -- and that could be done simply because you have artwork or because you have a tattoo or because you have a birthday card from somebody who’s in a gang… -- you then are given an indefinite sentence, which can go on for years and years and years and decades.

This is not the first hunger strike for California. In 2011, over 12,000 prisoners and their family and community members participated in statewide hunger strikes protesting the inhumane conditions in solitary. The core demands for the current strike, one of the largest ever, are below, in their own words, reprinted from thePrisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website.

  1. End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse
  2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria -Perceived gang membership is one of the leading reasons for placement in solitary confinement. The practice of “debriefing,” or offering up information about fellow prisoners particularly regarding gang status, is often demanded in return for better food or release from the SHU. Debriefing puts the safety of prisoners and their families at risk, because they are then viewed as “snitches.”
  3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement – [my note -- Why is this not so???]
  4. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food –
  5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite Secure Housing Unit (SHU) Status Inmates.

While this strike rages on, another horrible plague has struck California's prisoners. Governor Brown has said that California has the greatest health care for prisoners "in the world," but San Francisco Bay View reported that over 3,300 prisoners in such facilities as Avenal and Pleasant Valley State Prison are at high risk of infection or death from a fungal infection called “valley fever.”

Since 2006, 62 behind bars in California have died from this disease which undoubtedly is related to overcrowding and other unhealthful conditions. And 80% of those contracting the illness have been African-American, reported the Bay View.

Many have joined rallies and protests and signed petitions -- all found at the websites I've mentioned above. However, while we complain of 100 degree heat and take solace in our air-conditioned homes, prisoners across the country are suffering -- and not just for their crimes.

This piece was reprinted with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Jean Trounstine is the author of the highly praised Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in Women’s Prison (St. Martin’s) about her decade directing plays and teaching at Framingham Women’s Prison in Massachusetts. She has written numerous articles on prison issues for publications including Boston magazine, the Boston GlobeWorking Woman magazine, the Women’s Review of Books, and Truthout, and has been the subject of many articles, radio broadcasts (NPR, The Connection), and TV shows (the Today Show).

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