Will California Governor Jerry Brown, a lifetime opponent of capital punishment, take responsibility for the death of hunger strikers in solitary confinement in state prisons? That is a looming question as the hunger strike enters its fourth week and the governor and top legislators return from their summer vacations.
California prison officials appear to be engaged in aggressive news management to prevent greater public awareness of the crisis. They would not confirm last week’s death of a hunger striker, apparently by hanging, to the Los Angeles Times, not until a reporter received word from inmate advocates.
At least 600 inmates remain on strike, but the numbers participating in the action include more than 10,000 in many facilities across the state. The press is barred from seeing, interviewing or photographing any of the inmates, many of whom have been in solitary confinement for decades.
In a sign of urgency, monitors appointed by the federal courts have been dispatched to several prisons to investigate the risk of inmate deaths. The US Supreme Court has ruled California’s overcrowding crisis a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In January, Brown declared that “the prison crisis is over in California,” and appealed the federal decision.
The public is on Brown’s side when it comes to locking up violent convicted criminals. Lifting what amounts to a California Iron Curtain, however, would allow the public and elected officials to understand what has driven thousands of inmates to risk greater punishment, threats to their health and even their lives. Like the detainees at Guantanamo, the California hunger strikers are signaling that their situation is so lacking in hope that death has become a viable option.
If the Iron Curtain were lifted, the hunger strike demands would be revealed as simple, concrete and humane. They want a limitation of no more than five years in solitary confinement. They oppose forms of deprivation known to medical authorities to cause serious harm. They want to make occasional calls, and have family visits. They want healthy food, exercise and access to television on a limited basis. The sticking point is that the state historically insists that they “debrief” – that is, identify gang members by name – as a condition of any leniency. Demanding that inmates “snitch” puts their lives at risk and yields evidence that is far from perfect. Since the hunger strike of 2011, state officials have made only token progress toward addressing the demands, as shown by what is the largest hunger strike in prison history.