In this Aug. 17, 2011 file photo, a Calif. correctional officer is seen at Pelican Bay State Prison, one of the facilities where inmates participated in hunger strikes.Rich Pedroncelli / AP
A federal judge has approved a request from California and federal officials to force-feed inmates participating in a hunger strike now entering its seventh week, if necessary. The process, which prison officials call "refeeding," could include starting intravenous fluids or snaking feeding tubes through inmates' noses and into their stomachs.
Officials said they are particularly concerned about the health of 69 inmates, who are refusing prison-issued meals and have done so since the strike began on July 8 in protest to the state's holding of gang leaders and other violent inmates in solitary confinement that can last for decades.
Prison officials and attorneys representing the inmates all are increasingly fearful that some inmates will soon die as their vital organs fail. Officials, however, could not say how many inmates, if any, are currently near death.
"We have no plans to use this court order right now, or in the near future, as we don't have any inmates that are critically ill at this time," Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the federal receiver who controls inmate medical care, told Al Jazeera. "We wanted this order to be in place early as part of our due diligence to have appropriate protocols in place."
Inmates initiated the hunger strike – the largest of its kind in California history – on July 8 to highlight what they say are inhumane conditions in solitary confinement. An estimated 29,000 prisoners initially participated in the strike. That number has dwindled to 129 inmates across six California prisons, including the 69 who have refused food from the start.
They hope the strike will spotlight "cruel and inhumane" conditions in solitary cells known as Secure Housing Units (SHU), where hundreds in prisoners have been held in isolation for more than a decade.
"Those are coffins, concrete coffins…most of the people I was with didn't make it, most of my peers didn't make it," Ernest Shepard, a former inmate who served a 45-year sentence for murder, more than half of it in isolation, told Al Jazeera.
Prisoner demands include limits on the time inmates can spend in isolation, more family visits and increased access to rehabilitation and nutritious food.
But Jeffrey Beard, who is the head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, has dismissed the strike as a way for gangs to control drug flow among those in the prison population, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Referring to the strike as a "gang power play," Beard said in an opinion piece that appeared in the Times earlier this month that it was an attempt "to terrorize fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California."
Monday's filing came as prison officials and inmates' attorneys argued over whether strikers should be allowed to begin a liquid diet voluntarily. 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.
Prison policy is to let inmates starve to death if they have signed legally binding do-not-resuscitate (DNR) requests. While prison officials can already seek a court order forcing an individual inmate to take food, they have not done so.
But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and a federal receiver who controls inmate medical care had asked U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco for blanket authority to feed inmates who may be in failing health, including those who recently signed requests that they not be revived or who may have signed such requests under duress.
The federal and state officials were joined in the request by the Prison Law Office, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that represents inmates' welfare in ongoing lawsuits that led to a federal takeover of the prison health care system and a requirement that the state sharply reduce its inmate population to improve conditions.
They had asked Henderson to let the chief medical executive at each prison act if a hunger striker is at risk of "near-term death or great bodily injury" or is no longer deemed competent to give consent or make medical decisions.
The order signed by the judge is applicable to only the refeeding of inmates participating in the current hunger strike.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press