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On July 1, 2011, eleven inmates in the Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit (SHU) began a hunger strike to protest the egregious conditions of their confinement. In particular, they objected to the lack of adequate food or programming and the lack of justification for indefinite SHU confinement. They demanded that CDCR comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations, and provide conditions comparable to that of solitary confinement units in other states across the country. You can watch this video of a panel describing the conditions in SHU prisons, hosted by the Center for Constitutional Rights for more information. 

At least 6,000 prisoners across California joined the hunger strike in solidarity, and as the days rolled by, more and more advocates outside of the prison walls joined the fight: 

~ Banner Drop in Solidarity with the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike

~ Hunger Strike Rally at CDCR Headquarters

~ Hunger Strike: CA Prison Inmates Protest Cruel & Unusual Conditions

~ A Matter of Life & Death

As the hunger strike entered its third week, inmates’ health reportedly began deteriorating, and by the fourth week there was serious concern for their lives,

PHSS also reports that dozens of striking prisoners have lost 20 – 25 pounds are being taken to prison infirmaries because of irregular heartbeats or fainting.”

After 20 days, the near starving inmates accepted an offer by CDCR to review their policies and provide extra educational programming: 

~ Prison Hunger Strike Ends After 20 Days; Advocates Say Strike Raised Awareness about Prison Conditions

~ Pelican Bay Prison Hunger Strikers Declare Victory

Although their demands were not 100% met, the inmates have brought to light the disturbing conditions within which we house prisoners in California. Without adequate services and constitutional living conditions, inmates are released into the community unprepared for the challenges of reentry. The conditions in the SHU exacerbate mental health issues, and when held for long duration can cause serious psychological harm to the inmates. Sensory deprivation further isolates inmates, inhibiting their integration back into a societal structure. 

Many inmates are released from prison directly from SHU confinement, creating both a public safety and a public health concern. It is imperative that California rethink its use of long-term SHU confinement, and provide adequate conditions of care, and rehabilitative programs to inmates who will eventually rejoin our communities. 

On August 23, 2011, the Assembly Public Safety Committee will hold an informational hearing in Sacramento on CDCR’s policies and practices regarding the SHU. The legislative committee will be receiving public comment, so if you would like to add your voice to the dialogue, please make sure you attend this important meeting. 

For more information, you can visit the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition’s website at pris​on​er​hunger​strikesol​i​dar​i​ty​.word​press​.com.