Demonstrators hold up a sign during a rally in front of the State Building in San Francisco, Friday, July 1, 2011 to support prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison. Inmates in an isolation unit at Pelican Bay State Prison are on a hunger strike to protest conditions that they describe as inhumane. Advocates say several dozen inmates in the Security Housing Unit declined to eat their morning meal on Friday. The unit holds about a third of the 3,100 inmates at the Northern California prison. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
The number of California prison inmates on a hunger strike dramatically dropped Thursday, but 12,000 inmates still refused to eat for a fourth consecutive day to protest the common use of long-term isolation. For the frist three days of the strike, 29,000 inmates participated.
Getting to day four triggered an official state response, which includes aggressive monitoring of inmates’ health and possible disciplinary measures, including segregation and force-feeding.
Joyce Hayhoe, with the federal receiver’s office in charge of prison medical care, says that at four days without food, some inmates may already need attention, “to determine if there are any conditions or medications that place them at risk for complications during fasting."
For every day that inmates fast, medical staff will have more to do to ensure their safety. Within a week nurses will check daily on all inmates on the hunger strike. One week later, inmates will have the option of visiting doctors to have their weight and other vitals measured.
Hayhoe says that level of care could strain medical staff: “Any time you have a hunger strike of this magnitude it puts a lot of pressure on our resources.”
The federal receiver will ask nurses and other clinicians to work overtime — and if there isn’t enough staff response, outside medical staff will be contracted to help. The expense could add up quickly.
A four-week hunger strike in 2011 that at its peak involved 6,500 inmates cost $175,000 for outside doctors. And that’s just the extra medical costs. When inmates visit prison doctors to have their vitals measured, corrections had to provide escorts and that cost more too. Corrections incurred another $160,000 in the last hunger strike to boost staff.
California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's spokeswoman Terry Thornton says steps are being taken to contain costs this time. Segregating hunger strike leaders, she says, will prevent them from pressuring other inmates to participate: “We’ve got to make sure that we manage this properly. These types of actions are very disruptive to normal prison programs."
Thornton says in the 2011 hunger strike, some inmates actually gained weight — by consuming food they bought at the prison canteen.
“That just dilutes the effort of medical staff, and our staff working with them, away from inmates who really might need it,“ Thornton said.
This time, prison guards are telling inmates on the hunger strike that they will confiscate any food from their cells. Thornton says at that point a lot of inmates say they’re no longer on strike. The department also threatens to write up inmates who participate in the hunger strike for violating prison rules. Those write-ups can cost inmates credits that shorten their sentences — or cause them to lose special privileges.
Prison officials haven’t said yet whether they’ll resort to force-feeding inmates if the strike persists. Thornton says that’s a medical decision to be made by prison doctors.
But during the July 2011 hunger strike, then-Secretary of Corrections Matthew Cate said he would seek a court order to do it, rather than risk inmates’ deaths.
“Inmates have the right to refuse treatment, so we would have to abide by an inmate's wishes,” Hayhoe says. “Once an inmate is in a situation where they can’t refuse treatment, unless there is a medical directive on file, our physicians will take any steps to protect their life.”
Hayhoe says prison physicians would follow a court order to begin force-feeding.