KQED and California Watch reporter Michael Montgomery has extensive experience covering California prisons. I asked him to explain what the hunger strikes are all about, and what triggered them. An edited transcript of our conversation follows the audio below.
Why are prisoners on a hunger strike?
The current hunger strike began at the beginning of July in what's known as the Security Housing Unit, the high-security unit of Pelican Bay, which is California's highest-security prison. The strike started over conditions within these windowless isolation units, and also over why and how the prison system locks men in these units and the long length of time many of them have to spend there.
The security housing units, particulary the one built in Pelican Bay in 1989, is windowless, it's highly secure in the sense that inmates are generally housed alone; they're housed in pods. They do not leave their cell at all except for around an hour of exercise they get individually. That takes place in an adjoining concrete exercise pen. They don't go outside; in fact they don’t see the outside at all unless they have a very infrequent visit, for example, to a medical facility, or they go to court for a trial. So it's an interior life; it's a little bit eerie at pelican bay SHU; it's all white; it's antiseptic, almost a hospital-like feel. It's creepy.
The inmates really have little contact with each other. You can't really even see out of the cell doors themselves. In many ways it's like living in a windowless box.
Why are prisoners sent there?
Inmates are sent for two basic reasons: for committing some heinous offense behind bars, perhaps a murder. Or for being validated, to use the department's terminology, as being considered an associate or a member of one of seven prison gangs.
An inmate doesn't actually have to commit a specific offense like a murder or an assault to be sent to the security housing unit. The department has a procedure of validation where if they have three pieces of evidence -- it could be a drawing, a tattoo, associations -- that could be enough to send you to the unit. Inmates sent to the unit on gang validation are sent for what's known as indeterminate terms; this is a very controversial practice, because it means that some men have been languishing in these units for years.
It's worth noting that I have interviewed a number of inmates who were very active in prison gangs and who were very open that they were running criminal rings and ordering assaults even after they were sent to the Security Housing Unit. So there is no doubt that there are inmates who are dangerous and who certainly, experts would assert, need to be separated from the regular prison population.
How many people are estimated to be on strike?
The strike started at Pelican Bay; it spread to three other prisons. As of today there are over 400 inmates refusing food. It's important to point out that state officials say while there's a core of inmates who they believe have not eaten for nearly three weeks, there are other inmates who've kind of gone off and on; they've eaten some things then stopped eating, then started again in solidarity with the core strikers.
It's a little unclear how many inmates have completely not eaten, but there's clearly a core group who have not. We've seen reports from the state of some inmates losing as much as 25 pounds; when you lose more than a tenth of your body weight, physicians start getting worried that you could be on your way to some serious consequences, and the department announced this morning that several inmates are showing symptoms of starvation.
What are the prisons involved besides Pelican Bay?
The prisons include Corcoran, which also has a security housing unit and Tehachapi. There's another hunger strike at Calipatria going on that's somewhat separate from the strike going on in these security housing units.