Prison Hunger Strike Prompts Hearings on Use of Solitary Confinement

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Last week, California lawmakers said that they would hold hearings this fall on the use of solitary confinement in state prisons in response to a weeks-long hunger strike by inmates, the Los Angeles Times reports (St. John, Los Angeles Times, 8/30).

Background on Hunger Strike

In July, 30,000 inmates began refusing meals to protest the use of security housing units for indefinite isolation of certain prisoners as a way to manage prison gangs.

Members of the hunger strike -- organized by inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison -- seek a five-year limit on such isolation, as well as new educational and rehabilitation programs.

In August, a federal judge approved a request from prison officials and the Prison Law Office to have authority to force-feed inmates when they are at risk of "near-term death or great bodily injury" or when they are deemed incompetent to make their own medical decisions.

The filing also asked that medical officials at the prisons have the authority to override do-not-resuscitate requests that they believe inmates might have been coerced into signing. The filing calls for DNRs signed at or near the beginning of the strike to be automatically invalidated (California Healthline, 8/21).

Update on Strike

As of last Friday, 41 inmates had refused prison-issued meals since the strike officially began on July 8.

Another 123 inmates have refused food for shorter periods of time.

Liz Gransee -- a spokesperson for the court-appointed federal receiver overseeing prison health care in California -- said prisoners participating in the strike are monitored daily and seen by a physician at least once each week.

The majority of inmates who are refusing meals are consuming about 625 calories daily through vitamins and Gatorade, according to Reuters.

So far, the state has not invoked its ability to force-feed inmates.

However, 13 inmates have lost more than 10% of their body weight, while two have lost more than 15% of their body weight, according to Gransee. In addition, hundreds of prisoners in the strike have been treated at prison health clinics, hospitals and other facilities (Bernstein, Reuters, 8/30).

Following a recent meeting with participating inmates, Gransee said the prisoners "complained of dizziness and were pale and thin but still engaging and coherent."

Lawmakers Call for Hearing

State Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) -- chair of the Senate public safety committee -- said that she and Assembly member Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) plan to hold hearings on solitary confinement practices and other prison issues because the "impasse needs to be broken."

Inmates' advocates called the announcement a "positive step."

Deborah Hoffman -- a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation -- said the hearings will give prison officials a chance to show "all of the substantive reforms that have taken place" in the prison system (Los Angeles Times, 8/30).

Clark Norwood
With 35% of the US population obese can we assume that the prison population shares a similar demographic? A couple of years ago I did a fairly strict diet program and went from 191 pounds down to 165 in 6 weeks by taking a supplement and eating only 500 calories a day. In the end I felt better and looked much better with no long term negatives effects. That was 13% of my body weight. I'm sorry but I don't feel bad for these hard core criminals who started their "hunger" strike on their own, and are now loosing weight. LIke I've said before the vast majority of the residents at say Pelican Bay are not first timers that don't know the "system" and the consiquences of their actions while staying there. If they are going to "act out" then they should not be suprised at the reaction of the people running the facility. On a positive note I am impressed with their resolve in staying on their weight loss program since July 8th.

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