California inmates on third week of hunger strike risk injury, death

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Grant Slater/KPCC

Nzinga Shakur, a member of the Black Riders Liberation Party, listens to speech during a rally in solidarity with prisoners conducting a hunger strike at detention facilities across California.

After nearly three weeks, more than 300 California inmates are still refusing to eat in what’s become a long-running protest against conditions in prison isolation units.

Varying accounts show the number of hunger strikers is dropping. But those still part of the protest face serious health risks.

According to the federal receiver and Corrections Department officials, 338 inmates were still refusing food as of Sunday at 3 p.m. This included inmates at Calipatria, California Correctional Institute, Corcoran and Pelican Bay.

You can live for weeks without food, but doing it risks permanent damage to your body. That’s because when a body starved for nutrients burns away fat, it begins to consume muscles and organs.

Robert Rosenbloom, an emergency physician, practices medicine at Olive View UCLA Medical Center and Beverly Hospital in Montebello.

"It’s typically believed that after two or three weeks without any sugar source, any food source, you start entering a dangerous zone, that you’re actually doing enough damage to the body, that the body may not recover," says Rosenbloom

You’ll become, weak, disoriented, have trouble moving and breathing. You’ll risk damage to your liver or heart.

"When you digest, for example, heart muscle, obviously your heart is an incredibly vital organ," says Rosenbloom, "and so when you start damaging the heart and the muscle wall gets thin, then you can have some pretty serious consequences."

That’s the risk the prison hunger strikers are facing, but they insist they won’t eat until they win changes in prison policies that govern Security Housing Units, or SHUs. Inmates in SHUs spend 23 hours a day locked up, with an hour outside alone for exercise.

Many of the 3,900 inmates in SHUs are killers or rapists, but most of them – 2400 or so – got “indeterminate” SHU detention for ties to gangs. The hunger strikers say any link to a gang, such as a tattoo or a card sent to the wrong person, could land an inmate in a SHU and keep him there for decades.

"There were some disturbing reports of the deteriorating health of some of the strike leaders,” says Isaac Ontiveros with Critical Resistance, one of the nonprofit prisoner advocacy groups supporting the inmates’ strike. Still, Ontiveros says, the inmates on the hunger strike won’t back down from their demand for changes in SHU policies.

"When they took up the strike, when they called for the strike, when they organized the strike, they said they were willing to take it all the way," says Ontiveros.

Dialogue among prison officials, inmates and outside mediators has intensified. Late last week, advocates for inmates say they rejected a settlement offer from prison officials. They said it was vaguely worded.

Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton says the department has no plans to scrap policies that keep prison gang members in SHUs for indefinite stretches.

So what happens if an inmate dies before a resolution can be reached?

“I don’t know,” says Thornton. “It’s hard to answer a question like that. I don’t know into the future. I don’t know how long it would take for an individual to reach that point. But I know since the first day, we’ve had our medical staff engaged in this, and I would hope there’d be intervention provided by our medical staff.”

Inmates have the right to refuse food and they have the right to refuse treatment, up to a point, according to Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the federal receiver in charge of prison medical care.

"One of the things a clinician has to evaluate is if that person is of sound mind to consent or decline treatment," says Kincaid. "And certainly at some level, when people are severely dehydrated, they may not be aware of even their surroundings or what they’re communicating.”

As of Sunday afternoon, about a third of the inmates had refused a medical assessment, according to the federal receiver and Corrections officials. Medical personnel had started to see a few inmates with weight loss above 10 pounds.

That’s the point where a doctor would treat the inmate. “That’s a call that a clinician has to make," says Kincaid, "but by policy you don’t force-feed somebody just because they’re not eating."

Inmates can make sure they won’t be force-fed or treated by filling out paperwork before they become incoherent. "Someone can have a signed health care directive that says, 'I absolutely do not want to receive nourishment of any kind,'" says Kincaid. "And they have the right to refuse that.”

Kincaid says a couple dozen inmates have signed health care directives. Some instruct doctors to provide treatment if the inmate is incapable of making health decisions but others reject any treatment no matter what.

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