Back in July, hundreds of prisoners in correctional facilities throughout California decided to protest the heinous conditions they are routinely subjected to -- particularly the use of solitary confinement -- by peacefully refusing to eat. This hunger strike lasted three weeks and eventually led to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) agreeing to review their policy on solitary confinement and consider improvements in living conditions.
Nearly three months later, however, the CDCR still has not addressed any of the prisoners’ five core demands, and has instead done nothing but hand out a few measly “consolation prizes,” such as watch caps and calendars. As a result, a new hunger strike has begun, and as of last week correction officials confirmed that more than 4,200 inmates from at least eight different prisons are involved. Perhaps not surprisingly, prison officials are promising to “crack down” on the new wave of strikers by, you guessed it, removing them from the general population and placing them in an “administrative segregation unit."
The prisoners’ demands are not outrageous; in fact, they are in line with recommendations made by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. The CSAAP’s report on solitary confinement found what the ACLU has been saying for years: the practice does nothing but exacerbate mental illness and significantly reduce the odds of a prisoner successfully reentering society upon release. This of course comes in addition to the raw inhumanity of locking someone up for years in a bathroom-sized cell, as well as the financial burden that such practices place on taxpayers. (Construction of solitary confinement units can cost two to three times as much as traditional housing units.)
In July, during the first hunger strike in California, our Legal Director Zach Heiden blogged about some of the successes we’ve had here in Maine with respect to cutting back on the use of solitary confinement. Zach and others here at the ACLU have been working tirelessly on this issue for years, and deserve a lot of praise for the recent progress we’ve made here in our own state. We can only hope that California takes heed and makes similar changes to their correctional system as well.