U.S.

Fear and hunger at Pelican Bay

Court approves coercive feeding in response to inmates' hunger-strike protest

A Correctional Officer enters the Secure Housing Unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

On Aug. 19 the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) won legal permission to force-feed roughly 70 hunger strikers. More than six weeks ago, 30,000 inmates in California prisons -- almost one-quarter of the total -- stopped eating to publicize their demands for better treatment. This recent strike resumed a protest that began at Pelican Bay State Prison in July 2011 and spread to other state facilities. Internal complaints, appeals, even court orders had all failed the prisoners. They turned to public opinion.

Their demands are simple. Approximately 4,000 California inmates -- or three in every 100 -- are in solitary confinement, many in Security Housing Units (SHUs) used to separate prisoners who are deemed a threat to others or the prison's security. Many are held indefinitely for no criminal action or infraction of rules, though prison officials offer all kinds of justifications. Solitary forms no part of any legally mandated punishment. If it did, it would be actionable under the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment." It is instead defined, by a linguistic sleight of hand, as "administrative segregation."

The striking prisoners' demands are modest and grounded in elements of human decency: Put an end to administratively imposed long-term solitary confinement; stop collective punishment for individual violations of rules; modify the process that classifies prisoners as gang members and abolish debriefing, or informing on other prisoners, as the only way out of solitary; implement the recommendations of the 2006 U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons; provide adequate food and health care; and expand programs and privileges for those held in indefinite solitary beyond levels such as one photo a year, one phone call a week, two packages a year. None of these demands presents any security risk.

The size and boldness of the protest are astonishing. From its start, it drew many prisoners who were not in solitary. Participants know they could be in isolation tomorrow, for years on end and with no hope of release. The strikers came from all over the California prison system -- testimony not only to the resilience of the inmates themselves but also to their ability to form solidarities across physical distance and social boundaries, and to organize effectively for a large-scale peaceful protest.

Now the CDCR has won a court order from U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson -- the same judge who forced court supervision on the Pelican Bay supermax prison in 1995 -- allowing it to force-feed the strikers. This is the judge who ruled that even though solitary confinement in the SHU "hovers on the bounds of what is humanly tolerable," it nevertheless passes constitutional muster, unless a prisoner's "loneliness, frustration, depression, or extreme boredom" has crossed over into the realm of "psychological torture."

More than six weeks after the start of the strike, 94 inmates have refused at least nine consecutive meals and 45 of them have not eaten at all since the strike’s launch, according to the AP. Both the tactics of the authorities and the natural weaknesses of the strikers have brought their numbers down. One striker has died, though authorities ruled his death a suicide. Continued resistance by prisoners would probably have seen further reductions in numbers, though a couple of deaths might have resulted too. However, numbers themselves are not the issue here. Force-feeding hunger strikers is.

Must we compel prisoners to live in a dying situation by refusing them escape from a life worse than death?

The California court order violates the legally binding "do not resuscitate" requests signed by prisoners. The CDCR alleges that many of the prisoners were coerced into signing the requests. This claim deserves legal and moral scrutiny.

Gov. Jerry Brown has remained silent on the issue. His Orwellian-titled "Rehabilitation Secretary," Jeffrey Beard, claims the solidarity of the strikers is nothing more than "a gang power play." The policy of Brown and Beard’s CDCR is to win at all costs. Their strategy: refuse to talk to the prisoners, ignore their demands, misinform the public, intimidate and retaliate against the strikers, wear them down and coerce them into not striking.

Force-feeding can require that prisoners enormously weakened by their self-starvation be strapped to restraint chairs and shackled, so that tubes can be shoved through their noses and down their throats -- a process that causes excruciating pain, bleeding and vomiting. 

The mere prospect of the procedure will likely persuade some of the remaining strikers to abandon their protest. The others will face a spectacle of debasement and brutality that comes to them under cover of care.

The question is whether prisoners who have chosen to die, as a protest or in response to unendurable suffering, should have their decisions respected by the state, or should be saved by force. Do ethics and the law truly demand that we compel prisoners to live in a dying situation by refusing them an escape from a life worse than death?

The decision to force-feed -- what California prison officials now label "re-feeding" -- matches federal practice at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. There, too, under the guise of protecting the health of inmates, the government has resorted to "intensified assisted feeding" to end hunger strikes. By doing so, the United States has broken federal and international law. The government has tortured prisoners for whom it is legally obligated to care; it has compelled doctors to abandon their ethical obligations as medical practitioners; and it has denied the hunger-striking prisoners the right to take their own lives in protest of the inhumane treatment to which they are subjected daily.

No one pretends to believe that force-feeding the prisoners at Guantanamo will achieve any useful or beneficial effect for the United States -- or for the prisoners. No one should be under any similar illusion about force-feeding California inmates. It will certainly do nothing for "rehabilitation."

It costs more than $50,000 per year to keep one prisoner in Pelican Bay. The prison's entire annual budget is more than $180 million. Surely it would not compromise the coffers of a system that has spent so much on SHUs to allow prisoners one photo in their cells, one phone call a week to their loved ones, and two small packages a year. Basic decency should not be too expensive for Governor Brown, or for California.

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