Valley Public Radio - Live Audio

California Prison Hunger Strike Continues; State Responds

Jul 12, 2013

Pelican Bay State Prison
Credit California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

The number of California prison inmates on a hunger strike has dramatically dropped.  But 12,000 inmates still refused to eat for a fourth consecutive day Thursday to protest the common use of long-term isolation.  As KPCC’s Julie Small reports, that’s triggering an aggressive state response.

At four days without food, some inmates may already be at risk.  Joyce Hayhoe is with the federal receiver’s office that oversees medical care in the prisons. She says physicians have begun reviewing the files of inmates, “to determine if there are any conditions or medications that place them at risk for complications during fasting.”

For every day that inmates fast, medical staff will have more to do to ensure their safety.  Hayhoe says that level of care could strain medical staff.

“Any time you have a hunger strike of this magnitude, it puts a lot of pressure on our resources.”

The federal receiver will ask nurses and other clinicians to work overtime—and if there isn’t enough staff response, outside medical staff will be contracted to help.  The expense could add up quickly.  California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations spokeswoman Terry Thornton says steps are being taken to contain costs this time – starting with segregating hunger strike leaders.

“So we’ve got to make sure that we manage this properly. These types of actions are very disruptive to normal prison programs,” says Thornton.

Thornton says in the last hunger strike in 2011, some inmates actually gained weight—by consuming food they bought at the prison canteen.

“And that just dilutes the effort of medical staff – and our staff working in collaboration with them – away from inmates who really might need it,” says Thornton.

This time, Prison guards are telling inmates on the hunger strike that they will confiscate any food from their cells.  Thornton says at that point a lot of inmates say they’re not on strike.   The departments also threaten to write up inmates who participate in the hunger strike for violating prison rules.  Those write-ups can cost inmates credits that shorten their sentences—or the loss of special privileges.