Over 30,000 California prisoners started refusing meals on Monday morning in what might become the biggest hunger strike in California prison history, according to California's corrections department.
So far, corrections officials have acknowledged that prisoners in two-thirds of the 33 prisons across the state, along with all of the out-of-state private prisons in the system, have missed at least breakfast and lunch on Monday. Corrections officials don't start calling such a protest a hunger strike until prisoners have missed nine consecutive meals. 2,300 prisoners also refused to go to work or to their classes, they added.
While the California prison system has a less than stellar reputation on a handful of issues — many of which trace back to its astonishing overcrowding — the striking prisoners are focusing their message on improving conditions for those locked in solitary confinement. Last October, Mother Jones published a must-read on solitary in California, written by Shane Bauer, one of the three hikers kept in an Iranian solitary confinement cell for 26 months. Spoiler: Bauer thought California's conditions were worse.
Here's the message from the organizers of the protest, comprised of a group of inmates at the Pelican Bay State Prison:
California holds nearly 12,000 people in extreme isolation - over 3,000 for life - at a cost of over $60 million per year. The cells have no windows, no access to fresh air or sunlight. The United Nations condemns the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days as torture.
They've outlined five main demands, which organizers claim would bring the California system up to par with the standards at American Supermax prisons in other states:
1) End group punishment & administrative abuse.
2) Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria. [California inmates who are connected to a prison gang can be held in isolation indefinitely].
3) Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 recommendations regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement.
4) Provide adequate and nutritious food
5) Create and expand constructive programming.
The unofficial tally of this week's protest is already larger than the last hunger strike in the California corrections system. In 2011, over 11,600 inmates refused meals some meals, according to the LA Times. The department officially counted about 6,000 prisoners maximum who refused 9 consecutive meals. That 2011 protest make very similar demands to the current one. The length of time some California prisoners spend in solitary is also the subject of a current lawsuit.