Tom Hayden: “How to end California’s prison hunger strike.”

by on August 16, 2013 · 6 comments

in California, Civil Rights, Health, History

Both sides must set aside their profound differences and look at steps to relieve the worst elements of solitary confinement.

By Tom Hayden / LA Times /  August 16, 2013

At least 300 inmates are now several weeks into a fast that could soon lead to organ failure and death for many of them. Events are moving rapidly, but as I write, nothing has been resolved. And, as California corrections chief Jeffrey Beard made clear recently in an Op-Ed for this newspaper, the sides are far apart.

Beard, presumably reflecting Gov. Jerry Brown’s views, paints the strike leaders as dangerous gang leaders who are pressuring inmates into a hunger strike to “restore their ability to terrorize fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California.” That rhetoric is hardly designed to lead to conflict resolution. On their side, the strikers are demanding an immediate end to what they see as inhumane conditions, including indefinite solitary confinement, which they see as a violation of the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Neither side is going to change its basic position. But even if some of the biggest issues can’t be resolved, there is nevertheless an honorable way to end the California prison hunger strike before any of the strikers die.

The first thing that’s needed to prevent a tragedy is an immediate shift from the heated rhetoric to conflict-resolution measures. The governor’s negotiators have demanded that the hunger strikers end their fast before any issues can be resolved. Whatever its philosophical merits, that demand is likely to cost lives. The courts have already ruled that California prisons don’t meet constitutionally guaranteed standards. Does the governor really want a legacy of inmates starving to death on his watch?

To prevent deaths, both sides will have to put their philosophical differences on hold and focus on key measures that would bring relief from the worst agonies of solitary confinement, even if the state is unwilling to end it completely.

The strikers, for their part, must accept that some of their “core demands,” including the call for a far more humane approach to incarceration in the state’s Special Housing Units, are nonstarters with the Brown administration. The governor, for his part, should immediately ask his representatives to begin delivering on the strikers so-called supplemental demands. These include such measures as fixes to prison air conditioning systems, fresher food and the right to a weekly phone call. The strikers have also called for reopening the Pelican Bay visitors’ center and allowing visits of four to six hours on weekends and holidays for family members, who often must travel hundreds of miles to Pelican Bay. And they want the right to take one photograph per year, to purchase more art supplies from the canteen, to sell or give away artwork and to have more access to educational courses and current books.

Many of these supplemental demands should have been granted long ago because they are the right thing to do. Even some Brown administration officials privately acknowledge that many of the demands are reasonable. But the administration has refused to take any action as long as the hunger strikes continue. The prisoners, for their part, feel that if they end their action without any concessions from corrections officials, the pressure will be off, retribution will be taken and the status quo will resume.

There is an urgent need to put aside the toxic resentments and suspicions that date to California’s prison wars of decades past. Both sides need to focus on what is possible right now, and turn their immediate attention to preventing unnecessary deaths in the present stalemate. After that, the sides — with court intervention if necessary — can continue to deliberate on further reforms.

Tom Hayden has been many things, a former state senator, a leader of the anti-Vietnam war movement, is also the author of “Street Wars” and is a longtime advocate of prison reform.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

mjt August 16, 2013 at 9:48 am

“soft on crime” the death knell of politics. even governor moon beam has turned into a hard ass politician. ideals of the past conflict with fear. it is a social trap, and the agony of the prisoners fall on deaf ears.
torture has become as American as apple pie
the question is, what is the cause of our hard hearts?


Debra August 16, 2013 at 1:28 pm

I personally couldn’t care less how “inhumane” our prisoners are being treated. These idiots made a decision, or in many cases several decisions to end up where they are. Let’s consider first the sick, vicious criminal acts most of them committed in order to end up in prison before we waste any sympathy on their discomfort.


Tom Hunter August 16, 2013 at 6:36 pm

Wow Debra. What is your experience with the American system of justice. You may or may not get a good lawyer, and she may or may not have time to give you a good defence. Do you know the prosecutor’s office has ten times the resources of the public defender’s office? Plus the prosecutors have the police on their side. Torture is not discomfort. Torture is torture banned by the Geneva Convention in war, why not in Peace?


Debra August 16, 2013 at 6:56 pm

My “experience” is that I am permanently disabled and live in constant pain every single EFFING day of my life. Isn’t THAT torture? All due to a violent attack by a lying, piece of trash psycho who had a long history of abusing women. Am I supposed to lay awake at nite worrying about him or his cohorts, who are nothing but lazy slobs, complaining about their desire for more coloring books, inadequate AIR CONDITIONING or that their food isn’t FRESH enough??? PUHLEEEEZZZZE. Bring back the chain gangs and I guarantee the prisons would be almost empty.


Goatskull August 18, 2013 at 8:33 pm

Except that not all people in prison are there for violent crimes. I’ve also known lawyers who’ve prosecuted people who successfully put people away for defending themselves against their attackers. as disgusting as that is, it happens often.


Tom Hunter August 16, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Well at least you’re not bitter.


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