SEATTLE — Dozens of demonstrators gathered in front of the King County Jail on Monday in a show of solidarity and support for prison inmates on the West Coast who have begun a hunger strike to protest conditions and policies they describe as inhumane and torturous.
The strike that officially began Monday in California is the state’s third prison hunger strike over the past two years. It’s also the first time that the inmates have stopped working, according to an organizer of the Seattle demonstration.
“They’re shutting the prisons down from the inside,” Carol Isaac said.
California officials Monday said 30,000 inmates refused meals at the start of what could be the largest prison protest in state history, according to the Los Angeles Times. Inmates in two-thirds of the state’s 33 prisons, and at all four out-of-state private prisons, refused both breakfast and lunch on Monday, said corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton.
In addition, 2,300 prisoners failed to go to work or attend their prison classes, either refusing or in some cases saying they were sick, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Fasting and striking prisoners in California have five demands, chief of which is the end of lengthy periods in solitary confinement, which they say is a form of torture by deprivation. They’re also seeking an end to “tier punishment,” in which a whole slew of inmates are punished for infractions committed by individuals, according to Ed Mead, an editor, publisher and prisoner-rights activist who spent 18 years behind bars.
“I challenge anyone to come out and say this system is working,” said Mead, who also took part in the noontime demonstration outside the King County Jail. “The U.S. has 4 percent of the population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The recidivism rate is 70 percent.”
The demonstration in Seattle drew nearly 80 people who picketed in a circle in front of the jail, chanting and drumming and carrying signs that called for an end to inhumane prison treatment.
A few Seattle police bicycle officers watched the peaceful demonstration from across the street.
According to Mead, the hunger strike has been planned for months by inmates of the maximum-security prison at Pelican Bay, Calif., to protest the state’s use of indefinite solitary confinement and the conditions in that unit.
Mead said it is tantamount to a state-sanctioned “form of torture” to hold people isolated in windowless cells and deprived of human contact, for as long as 40 years.
A spokesman for the Washington state Department of Corrections said the strike has not affected prisons in this state.
However, Mead said that some residents of the Green Hill juvenile-detention center in Chehalis, which is run by the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), had begun a hunger strike Monday to support the California inmates and to demand access to drug, alcohol and sex-offender treatment programs; wages for labor; and an end to solitary confinement.
Thomas Shapley, a spokesman for DSHS, said Green Hill staff said they knew of no youths who were fasting and had received no demands.
In addition to changes in solitary confinement and the elimination of group punishment, prisoners in California are asking for an end to a debriefing policy that requires inmates who want to be taken off the prison’s list of gang members to “snitch” on others, Mead said.
Inmates are also demanding that prisons comply with national safety and abuse recommendations, provide adequate food, and provide access to constructive educational activities and recreation to those in solitary confinement.
According to the Los Angeles Times, California experienced its largest mass prison hunger strike in 2011, during which some 6,500 inmates in nine prisons at one point or another refused food.
In October, California changed its criteria for segregation of inmates and began what it said would be a review of every inmate already isolated.
To date, the state has reviewed the cases of 382 inmates, moving 208 back into the general population, the L.A. Times reported.
A spokeswoman for the California prisons said the department is reviewing the status of the 4,527 inmates in solitary confinement, though not all are eligible for release, according to the newspaper.