State prison officials are taking the offensive, calling on inmates to prove they are truly on a hunger strike that is drawing national attention to their campaign against indefinite solitary confinement designed to thwart prison gangs.
A correctional officer sorts thorugh canteen food during a routine search of a cell — before the latest hunger strike began. Del Norte Triplicate file / Bryant Anderson
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began confiscating canteen items of the 7,667 inmates in 24 state prisons and one out-of-state prison who are deemed to be on a hunger strike by refusing state-issued food.
It’s voluntary, but “if an inmate refuses to give up his canteen food, he’s not considered to be on a hunger strike,” said CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton.
Once an inmate resumes eating state-issued food, his canteen food will be returned, Thornton said.
CDCR doesn’t consider an inmate to be on a hunger strike until he has missed nine consecutive meals issued by the prison. Some inmates refusing prison meals have still been eating from their canteen stock, Thornton said.
Medical staff for the prisons increase their monitoring of inmates during hunger strikes to provide medical care, identify inmates at risk during fasting and ensure the safety of inmates who resume eating.
“We don’t need to dilute those resources for people who are eating their canteen food, yet saying they are on a hunger strike,” said Thornton.
Inmates refusing state meals are forcing CDCR to eat the costs. Prisons are obligated to give an inmate meals three times a day; if an inmate refuses to eat, then the meals are thrown away.
The daily cost to feed an inmate is $3.14. At the beginning of the hunger strike Monday, 30,000 inmates refused state-issued meals, that number slightly dwindled to nearly 29,000 by Wednesday and dropped dramatically by Friday.
“We’re not tracking those costs,” said Thornton. “Those costs are included in what it takes to operate a prison.”
As of Friday, 1,196 inmates statewide were not working or attending classes, another leg of the publicity campaign started by a handful of inmates in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit.
Contingency plans have been set in place at each prison experiencing work refusals that include having prison staff make up for the lack of workhands, Thornton said.
Prisons have also begun segregating inmates instrumental in coordinating the hunger strikes from the rest of the population.
“The vast majority of inmates are not participating in this and they shouldn’t feel pressured to do so,” said Thornton.
Attention comes quickly
The latest strike started out almost triple the size of the two in 2011 and has moved much faster through media channels that were established during the earlier strikes. It took a couple of days after the initial July 2011 hunger strike for national media to begin publishing stories about the strike. This time it was overnight.
“We’re getting a lot of media coverage,” said Thornton. “I think there was a lot last time. It seemed like it kind of grew with that first hunger strike.”
The initial hunger strike was sparked by a group of inmates located in the SHU indefinitely who were trying to end a process that forces inmates to share information about gangs in order to get out.
They’re also seeking more nutritional food and expanded educational opportunities for SHU inmates.
CDCR has been limiting the information it releases and disciplining inmates through write-ups and segregation more with each hunger strike. In the initial strike, inmates were not segregated, then CDCR began segregating the inmates and issuing citations for rule violations, though it continued to share information on how many strikers each prison had.
Officials are no longer releasing specific information, citing safety concerns due to the hunger strike being started by prison gangs.
The strikes have been organized by a group of inmates from four main groups that has dubbed itself the Short Corridor Collective. It is comprised of representatives of Northern California Hispanic, Southern California Hispanic, AfricanAmerican and white inmates. That makeup also represents the four most powerful and dangerous gangs in California’s systems: Nuestra Familia, Mexican Mafia, Black Guerilla Family and Aryan Brotherhood.
All four of the main representatives are serving life terms for murder and are considered gang leaders.
They were housed near each other preceding the 2011 hunger strikes. Three of them were in the same pod and another one was in a neighboring pod in an area of the SHU known as the Short Corridor. That’s where gang investigators placed all of the inmates they deemed the most influential and powerful within their criminal syndicates in 2006, which enabled investigators to scrutinize their mail communications — a major lifeline for prison gangs that operating illicit activities on California’s streets.
Some inmates say the stifled communications caused the historically segregated inmates to come together. Two Collective members recently interviewed by the Triplicate stated repressive and corrupt polices inspired this movement, though they acknowledged the Short Corridor brought them together.
The Collective is now armed with the support of a team of attorneys working to get them out of the SHU through a lawsuit originally filed in 2009 by the Collective’s white representative. It was picked up following the 2011 hunger strikes and retooled to include a larger class of Pelican Bay SHU inmates.
It seeks to have all inmates who have been in Pelican Bay’s SHU for more than 10 years released from solitary confinement.
The effort has gained the support of the chairman of the state Assembly Public Safety Committee, Tom Ammiano.
“I continue to be concerned about the policies being used to segregate prisoners who are deemed — often on weak public grounds — to be gang leaders,” Ammiano stated in a press release Tuesday.
Ammiano was unavailable for comment Friday.
Amnesty International also continues to call for inmates to be released from the SHU.
No ‘real change’
CDCR has implemented a pilot program that offers inmates another way out of the SHU besides dropping out of their gangs and has been reviewing the files of inmates for possible release from the state’s SHUs —208 inmates have been cleared to return to general population.
The Collective’s Northern Hispanic representative, Antonio Guillen, told the Triplicate he is skeptical of the changes.
“We want to be able to get out,” said Guillen “It doesn’t look like there’s going to be any real change for certain people to get out of the SHU.”
Members of the Collective had been meeting with Pelican Bay officials regularly following the 2011 hunger strikes.
In one of the last meetings, the white representative had to be escorted out and the rest of the inmates asked to leave in an act of solidarity. There has been no meeting since June 19.
The Triplicate is the only news media outlet to conduct sit-down interviews with any of the four main Collective representatives, a prison official said.
The Triplicate ran a four-part series leading up to this latest hunger strike exploring daily life in the SHU, ways prison gangs communicate from the SHU, the coordination and motivation behind the hunger strikes and CDCR prison gang policy reform.
The Triplicate interviewed two Collective members for more than 20 hours for the series.