Hunger strikes in California prisons: the human cost of incarceration

As the United States is facing a major divide in civil society – a modern day reenactment of an age-old class war – a vast portion of its members are consistently absent from the debates: inmates, in spite of their growing numbers, fail to be included within society. Part of the prison sentence is to be isolated from the everyday life and ongoings of the nation. However, it is this absent-minded way to think of prisons only in terms of law enforcement and judicial hearings that have led to a number of prison protests over the last year. Not so far from the movement having sparked the Attica riots, the inmates of Pelican Bay Supermax are requesting that the state meets their demand: to be treated as human beings. In a time and age where prisons are now privatized and advertised like any consumerist products, will their clientele be treated as more than cattle? Sue Thomas takes a look on the modern methods of discipline and their failure to meet basic human rights standards.

“What does it say about their living conditions that they would rather kill themselves slowly than continue to live as they do now?”

Prison protests are nothing new. Only last December, prisoners in institutions across the state of Georgia banded together and went on strike, calling for better nutrition and healthcare, as well as access to education and to their families. However, the hunger strike started by prisoners in California on July 1st has now become the largest state inmate coordinated protest. Reports estimate that around although participation had peaked at 6600 inmates during the first week. Despite it becoming evident that some prisoners are falling seriously ill, the inmates are determined to continue until their voices are heard. What does it say about their living conditions that they would rather kill themselves slowly than continue to live as they do now?

The prisoners in California aren’t asking for what the ACLU so eloquently describes as “bubble baths and afternoon tea”. The protest was started by inmates being held in a Secure Housing Unit (SHU) in the Pelican Bay institution. In these SHUs, human beings (it is important to remember that despite their crimes, these people are still human like the rest of us) are kept in solitary conditions locked in their cells for 22 1/2 hours a day, and reportedly are denied adequate food as a method of discipline. People are held in these conditions for years, even decades, without any other physical human contact. A federal judge, Warren Urbom, noted that conditions in SHUs – whilst also acknowledging that the effects of this treatment – were only known in people who had been subjected to it for up to a few years. The implication: it is not yet known if being held in extreme solitary confinement for decades of someone’s life may, in fact, amount to deep psychological trauma. John McCain described his time in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war as “awful” and the treatment was nearly declared to be unconstitutional in the 1890s (1). What has changed in the past 100 years to get us to the stage we are now, where people are kept in pens alone for many years at a time?

Inmates are asking that those extreme treatments be used as a last resort, and for much shorter periods than they are currently. They also request that gang labels afforded to prisoners are periodically reviewed, as perceived gang affiliation is a key reason for many men being placed in solitary confinement. These suspected gang members are judged on their tattoos and acquaintances within the prison, and condemned to a secure unit for seemingly indefinite amounts of time. It is worth noting that these dangerous gang individuals, who are kept in solitary conditions to prevent gang-based violence in the prison, have broken down gang lines to band together during this protest. However,that many people held in SHUs on account of being gang members, have never been found guilt of committing a gang-related crime: they just fit the label of what a gang member looks like. Release back into general prison population only comes after a process known as “debriefing,” which generally means giving officers information about other gangs which may be operating in the institution.

Inmates' supporters are calling for widespread awareness on the use of torture in Pelican Bay.

“This strategy ignores the plurality of purposes of punishment, and even abuses the intended purpose of imprisonment itself”

This whole process seems to distinctly follow Foucault’s premise:  in Discipline and Punish, he argues that the prison should be about creating ‘docile bodies’who learn to keep themselves under permanent surveillance, leading to their conformity to societal norms and values:

«What was then being formed was a policy of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behaviour. The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it. A ‘political anatomy’, which was also a ‘mechanics of power’, was being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, but so that they may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines. Thus discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies.»

Foucault thought prisons should be complete and austere institutions which should use isolation and solitude to create normal individuals. However, to many more modern criminologists, this strategy ignores the plurality of purposes of punishment, and even abuses the intended purpose of imprisonment itself. While prison is based on the theoretical concepts of retribution, denunciation and incapacitation (2), it is the act of imprisoning people itself which fulfills these. Solitary confinement for years at a time goes above and beyond the basic idea of incapacitating individuals for punishment. They are already being held away from their families and friends, kept to a strict routine which allows them no autonomy, and are at the complete mercy of those guarding them.
There is nothing to suggest that keeping people in isolation aids other principles of criminal sentencing, such as rehabilitation and restoration (3). If prisoners are denied human contact and education and food is used as a weapon against them, how can they be expected to be restored into law abiding citizens? This is before we even account for the effects of solitary confinement on their mental health. Ansuggests “the experience typically leaves them unfit for social interaction,” which is clearly not a positive characteristic one would hope for in a successfully rehabilitated individual. Admittedly, many prisoners held in Pelican Bay SHU are serving life sentences, however, rehabilitative measures would surely aid in allowing them to be better prepared for life with the general prison population.

“Prisons are becoming increasingly used as a form of social control, for cleaning away people that the system can no longer be bothered to deal with”

Prisons in California are notoriously overcrowded, with a judge ordering in May of this year that the state have two years to reduce their inmate population by 33,000, therefore it is perhaps not surprising that principles of rehabilitation and restoration may have fallen by the wayside. The state’s inmate population grew to 164,000; a rise of 556% in just 25 years. California has also embraced the leading to growing numbers of inmates who have been sentenced to longer periods of incarceration than they would have previously. Anyone who has been previously convicted of a serious or violent felony who then goes on to commit a second felony faces a sentence of double what is usually handed down. If an individual then goes on to commit a third felony, they face life imprisonment, with a minimum sentence of 25 years. The second and third “strikes” do not have to be for further violent or serious felonies can be sentenced to life imprisonment for a third offense which would usually only attract a two year jail term. The implication of this is that in 2004, 26 percent of California’s prison population were serving time under the three strikes law.

Three strike laws effectively say that once an individual has committed a violent or serious felony, there is little point in rehabilitating them should they choose to return to a life of crime. Once someone is on their third strike, even though they may one day be released, they have effectively been condemned to a life in prison. Prisons are becoming increasingly used as a form of social control, for cleaning away people that the system can no longer be bothered to deal with. Elected officials see no efforts to rehabilitate them, or even to treat them like basic human beings. The prisoners on strike at Pelican Bay are asking to be allowed more access to natural light, to have adequate healthcare, for more nutritious food. They would like to be allowed to complete educational courses, to be treated as individuals instead of punished as a group for one individual’s misdeeds. None of these demands would afford them a life of luxury, merely a more humane existence; one more in line with all alleged purposes of criminal sanctions. Mahatma Gandhi once said “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” In the example of the United States, this cannot have particularly positive implications. Inmates in California’s prisons are committed to protesting their living conditions through a hunger strike, even as those with weaker health fall ill. Many have said they are prepared to starve themselves to death, and have refused medical treatment. Maybe these people have done ill deeds in their lives, but at the end of the day, they were sentenced to life, not death.

(1) Lobel, Jules. Prolonged Solitary Confinement and the Constitution, University of Pennsylvania, School of Law.

(2) Duff, R.A., and Garland, D. (1994) ‘Introduction: Thinking about Punishment’ in Duff, R.A., and Garland, D. (eds) A reader on Punishment, Oxford: Oxford University Press
(3) Villa-Vicenuio, C. (2006) ‘Transitional Justice, Restoration and Prosecution’ in Sullivan, D., and Tifft, L. (eds) Handbook of Restorative Justice: A Global Perspective, London: Routledge

 Sue Thomas is a graduate of the University of Hull. She obtained her Masters in Criminology in 2008 and specialises in incarceration and rehabilitation. She currently lives in York, United Kingdom.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: