As a hunger strike nears its seventh week, it remains to be seen how California prison officials will respond if a fasting inmate dies.
Inmates have consistently been treated at prison medical facilities throughout the protest, and earlier this week a federal judge gave the California Correctional Health Care Services permission to force-feed inmates if their health diminishes enough.
“We have not needed to use the court order immediately,” said Joyce Hayhoe, Director of CCHCS.
As of Wednesday, 80 inmates in four prisons were considered to be on a hunger strike, 44 fasting continuously since July 8.
“We have a lot of inmates showing signs of fatigue,” said Hayhoe. “We haven’t seen, up to this point, any changes in vision likely because we have been giving them multivitamins four times a day.”
There hasn’t been any organ failure either, Hayhoe said.
“That could change at any time and that’s why we continue to be concerned,” said Hayhoe.
The core group of inmates leading the third hunger strike in two years are housed in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit. They are protesting the use of long-term solitary confinement to thwart prison gang communications.
Inmates claim they are being wrongly labelled gang affiliates, while the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and some other inmates who participated in past protests insist it is being driven by prison gang leaders seeking release to grow their criminal enterprises.
The state’s estimated number of hunger-strikers has been disputed throughout the protest by prison advocates.
“I would say it’s a quite bit more,” said Isaac Ontiveros, adding that CDCR’s numbers are “gray.”
Officials don’t consider inmates who drink nutritional drinks to be on a hunger strike, though the doctors continue to monitor them.
“Whatever the numbers it’s still a dire situation,” said Ontiveros.
The hunger strike has garnered national and international media attention and generated support from several well-known political and civil activists, as well as advocacy journalists, politicians and celebrities.
The hunger strike has also effectively disrupted the operations of California’s prisons.
“This is what people do when they have very little recourse,” said Ontiveros. “This is how bad it is.”
Inmates are asking the CDCR to begin negotiations, though officials have staunchly rejected the prospect while inmates remain on a hunger strike. Officials have been in discussions with prisoner mediators however.
“If the inmates stop the hunger strikes we’ll continue to have dialogue with them,” said CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton. “This is a mass disruption, CDCR does not condone this type of disruptive behavior.”
She couldn’t answer what stance CDCR would take if inmates die as a result of the hunger strike.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” said Thornton. “I hope no one dies.”