More than 400 inmates in California prisons have refused food to protest what they call “inhumane” conditions in isolation units. Some of those inmates have not eaten for nearly three weeks, and say they're prepared to die to make their point. On Tuesday, the head of the state corrections department said he’d seek a court order to allow officials to force-feed inmates if necessary to save their lives.
Inmates in the SHU get an hour a day in a concrete yard with high walls and no direct sunlight. The other 23 hours, they spend in a cell. They and their supporters call those conditions “torturous,” and say Corrections’ policy of indefinitely detaining inmates identified as gang members in the isolation units only makes matters worse.
The hunger strikers at Pelican Bay State Prison, Calipatria, Corcoran, and the California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi say they’re prepared to die so they can force Corrections to end the practice. But the Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate says he’ll intervene to make sure prisoners don't get hurt.
"My view of it as I sit here today – and this may change – is that I’ll seek court orders to ask that they be force-fed," says Cate.
He adds that inmates at the Pelican Bay SHU who started the hunger strike were isolated for violent behavior in other prisons.
"I’m looking at the disciplinary history of one of the leaders of this hunger strike," Cate says. "[He} has - one, two, three, four, five - has stabbed five inmates on separate occasions, has been found in possession of a weapon one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times and has assaulted staff on three different occasions."
Many of California's 3.900 SHU inmates are among the most dangerous men in the state. They're unable to make phone calls and have limited contact with other prisoners and guards. When family members visit, they’re separated by a thick glass wall.
Secretary Cate says the majority of SHU inmates are active in the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood or other powerful prison gangs. Gang membership will earn an inmate an indefinite detention in the SHU. But Cate says the department offers a way out.
"If you want to leave Pelican Bay, just raise your hand, go through the debrief process and disavow the gang - and we’ll move you to a 'sensitive needs' yard a protective housing yard somewhere in the state."
Secretary Cate says 2,000 inmates have been debriefed and have abandoned gang life. He knows of none who suffered retaliation from gangs. But he acknowledges some risk to inmates and their families. Inmates say debriefing is a “snitching policy” that gets other inmates tossed in the SHU on flimsy evidence.
Prisoner rights attorney Charles Carbone has sued Corrections over SHU policies and won. But Carbone says when prison officials agree to changes, they don’t follow through. He says when they claim something is proof that an inmate is still active in a gang, they still don’t provide a reason why.
"So as an example, if you have an address in an address book, you have to be able to communicate that," Carbone says. "Lo and behold, the prisoner was communicating with the other person about gang life - not about the weather."
Carbone says he continues to get calls from inmates' family members crying because Corrections has labeled their loved one a gang member and sent them to the SHU.
Patricia Aguilar has walked that road. Her husband has served a decade of his 25-year sentence for a third-strike offense in the SHU at Pelican Bay. She says Corrections investigators recently determined that a flag on a folder in her husband's cell means he’s still active in the gang.
"It’s really nothing concrete," Aguilar says. "It’s always something that they just say, 'This is how we feel and this piece of evidence shows that you’re in a gang. This is what we’re going to use to lock up another six or seven years.'”
Aguliar’s husband is one of the prisoners involved with the hunger strike in the Pelican Bay State Prison.
"They’re willing to go the distance to prove that these conditions that they live in are just deplorable and inhumane and something has to be done about it," she says.
Inmates have a right to decline food and medical treatment until they’re incapable of making decisions about their health.
A dozen or so inmates have signed advance health directives that order prison medical staff not to feed or treat them – no matter what. But Secretary Cate thinks he can persuade a judge to override those directives. He’ll also seek an order that would apply to any inmate refusing food whose health is in danger.
Cate says Corrections has offered to meet some of the inmates’ demands: warmer winter clothing and greater to access to classes. He says he’s told the inmates that the department is reviewing its policies – but he also says he won’t change any policy just because inmates say it’s wrong.