By Michael Montgomery and Lisa Aliferis
With an inmate hunger strike over conditions at California’s highest security lockups now at day 54, it seems remarkable that none of the 41 prisoners refusing food since July 8 has experienced serious or life-threatening medical problems.
Officials monitoring the protest report that, as of Wednesday, the men had body mass indexes in the 20s, well above a danger zone established by the court-appointed receiver overseeing prison medical care. Only two of the prisoners had lost more than 15 percent of their body weight, another critical measure.
While the inmates are clearly suffering as a result of the extended fast, and report bouts of extreme nausea and dizziness, there are “no imminent health emergencies and no prisoners in critical condition,” said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokesperson for receiver Clark Kelso.
So what’s keeping the hunger strikers from more severe starvation? The answer, it turns out, could be mass quantities of Gatorade, the ubiquitous sports drink.
Under state rules, inmates are considered on hunger strike if they refuse all state meals for more than three days and have no other food items in their cells, such as snacks from the prison commissary.
However, Hayhoe said each day the hunger strikers are receiving five powder packets of Gatorade that deliver a total of 600-625 calories. That’s in addition to supplies of vitamins.
Hayhoe said the electrolytes in Gatorade are not considered “nutrition,” which would otherwise cancel inmates’ participation in a hunger strike.
“The amount of calories and the type of calories (from Gatorade) will not keep them from getting malnourished and could lead to heart, liver and muscle damage,” she said. “But it helps sustain them longer.”
The aim of providing electrolytes is to prevent severe dehydration, Hayhoe said.
Still, 650 calories from Gatorade constitutes “a severe starvation diet," notes Andrea Garber, an expert on starvation with UC San Francisco Benioff Children's Hospital. The Gatorade is merely "prolonging the starvation, not preventing it."
Garber further notes that body mass index is a blunt measure and must be looked at individually. “We see patients starved and at high risk and they still have normal BMIs,” Garber noted. So hunger striking prisoners with BMIs in the 20s may not indicate much about their medical condition.
The fact that two of the prisoners have lost 15 percent of their body weight is a more accurate measure, she says, because it takes into account their starting point. Garber said a loss of 15 percent of body weight is a criteria for hospital admission in adolescents she treats.
As of Thursday, none of the strikers had been moved to an outside hospital, according to Hayhoe.
On August 19, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson issued an order allowing force-feeding (or involuntary re-feeding) of any inmate near death. While the order prompted angry responses from prisoner advocacy groups, officials said such measures are not needed, at least for now.
In fact, visitors who spoke with strike leaders this week reported the men were chipper and energetic, thanks in part to the daily supply of Gatorade.
Anne Weills, an Oakland attorney representing several of the strikers in a federal lawsuit over conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, said the prisoners were “vibrant and intellectually sharp” when she met with them on Wednesday.
“They are fiercely committed to this struggle,” she said. “They still want to negotiate with the state.”
However, corrections officials have refused to negotiate with the hunger strikers and this week released a document claiming to have addressed (thought not agreed to) all their key demands.
Officials maintain the current protest is the work of violent gang leaders seeking to reassert control over criminal networks in prison system and on the streets.
Hayhoe said that while several inmates are under medical observation, the biggest concern right now is a sudden heart attack.
Update: The prison hunger strike ended on Sep. 5, 2013.