The prison hunger strike that began July 8 with more than 30,000 California inmates protesting secure housing units is now over.
The central issue in the 60-day strike was the units, called security housing units, where hundreds of inmates have been held in isolation for decades. But now that the strike is over, has anything changed? Who “won,” and where do we go from here? Michael Montgomery of The Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED, who has covered the California prison system for years, explains why, after two months, the fundamental issues at the state's toughest prisons have yet to be worked out.
Note: Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
What does it mean now that the strike is over?
Michael Montgomery: The bottom line is the hunger strike has resolved very little. The issue over security housing units is still wide open. There is a federal lawsuit by a coalition of civil rights groups on behalf of Pelican Bay (State Prison) inmates underway that challenges the state’s use of these units. Some advocates have even said they wanted inmates to end the hunger strike because it was getting in the way of the lawsuit.
How did the hunger strike play out in the last 60 days? What happened?
Montgomery: The strike began on July 8 with about 30,000 inmates refusing to eat. This quickly dwindled down to a core of 40 inmates. What’s remarkable is that, even despite a court order to force-feed inmates near death, there’ve been no medical emergencies, considering they hadn’t eaten any meals in two months. We learned that the inmates have been getting vitamins and huge doses of Gatorade – 650 calories a day of Gatorade. That kept them going, but reaching 60 days, it’s clear that they were pretty exhausted.
Montgomery: What I understand is that there were a lot of behind-the-scenes discussions between inmates, lawyers and advocacy groups on how to find a way to end the strike. The Department of Corrections (and Rehabilitation) made it clear they weren’t going to negotiate. So the inmates had to find a way to declare victory without having actually gotten any major concessions.
The supporters of the strike are claiming victory by saying it succeeded in bringing attention on these units. They specifically point to the announcement by two state lawmakers who say they’re going to hold hearings this fall. But throughout the strike, the Department of Corrections has refused to negotiate. They’ve given no concessions.
Where does the debate over security housing units go from here?
Montgomery: The battle now moves to the courts, with the federal lawsuit. There will be a hearing this fall on whether or not to make this a class-action lawsuit. We could have a trial next year. But the Department of Corrections says they’re making changes to their policies, which could make the lawsuit moot. Meanwhile, lawyers and inmates say the current policy hasn’t been changed enough – that what the department is doing in terms of holding men in these special units for years amounts to torture as defined by international conventions.
Watch: Does 22 1/2 hours alone in an 8-by-10 cell every day amount to torture?
How do California prisons compare nationally? Is this only a California thing?
Montgomery: Supporters of the hunger strike say the bigger issue here is Americans’ extensive use of security units. They say even within America, California is an outlier. Advocates are saying California uses security units far more extensively than any other state and that America uses them far more extensively than any other democratic nation. So there’s a big national movement to put limits on these units; part of that battle is in California.
How does the controversy over security units play into California’s larger prison problems?
Montgomery: The issue over isolation units is just one of the many problems facing the Department of Corrections, but it’s a smaller issue under their eyes. They’re under federal court order to reduce the inmate population by 10,000 by the end of the year. It’s going to cost them lots of money, so the last thing the Department of Corrections needs is another successful lawsuit that could put them in some kind of court order or being put under more monitoring by federal judges. Still, they absolutely were not going to be seen negotiating with the hunger strikers. Corrections officials see that as tantamount to negotiating with terrorists.
Has the Department of Corrections made any policy changes at all?
Montgomery: The department has made some changes. They’ve allowed inmates in special units who’ve had no disciplinary violations to have one phone call a year. They’re allowing them one photograph a year. Before that, inmates held in these special units weren’t allowed to have their photograph taken for themselves or for their families. You had inmates in there who hadn’t been photographed for 20 or 25 years. Those things may seem trivial to us, but they’re huge for these inmates who’ve been in isolation for so long.
So the Department of Corrections won’t give in, but advocates see the strike as a win. How do others see it?
Montgomery: There have been small-scale protests around the state, but it’s fair to say that the hunger strike has not triggered widespread public outrage. The Department of Corrections has said that the hunger strike leaders are dangerous gang members and this is all just a ploy to reassert control over drugs and extortion rackets.
The public has had a hard time evaluating allegations from the Department of Corrections versus what the inmates are saying. So there hasn’t been a huge upsurge in public support for the strike. The support that is there has generally come from families with men in these units or advocacy groups.
Have additional questions about what’s going on in California prisons? Let us know below and we’ll do our best to answer. Follow Michael Montgomery on Twitter at @MichaelMontCIR or email him at email@example.com.