Sunday, July 10, 2011

"I Don't Mind Stealing Bread From the Mouths of Decadence": Pelican Bay Hunger Strike Continues

The LA Times reports today on the ongoing hunger strike among inmates in the maximum-security "isolation" units at Pelican Bay State Prison, up near the Oregon border. We haven't been keeping up with this story, admittedly, so we'll do our best to explain it. Pelican is a Supermax facility, meaning that it houses some of California's most dangerous convicts; the inmates in its isolation units, many of whom have gang ties, are considered the worst of the worst. On July 1, these inmates started a hunger strike in protest of the living conditions in those units: specifically, they contend that isolation is cruel and inhumane, and they're asking for better food, warmer clothes, and the right to make one phone call a month (another report has them demanding greater access to educational materials). A website set up by supporters of the strikers claims that the prison attempted to head off the strike by promising the inmates strawberry shortcake and ice cream on July 4, and subsequently reneged on the promise. While the strike began with only a few dozen inmates, it spread quickly, and some reports had as many as 6,600 strikers at 13 state prisons refusing at least some meals. According to the Times, some 1,600 isolation-status inmates are continuing to hold out.

To be clear: the hunger strike has nothing to do with the inefficiency of death row in California; the striking prisoners aren't protesting against overcrowding or inadequate medical care; and we're not talking about low-level and/or non-violent offenders behind bars because of the three-strikes law. We're talking about prisoners who have committed crimes while in prison, or whose gang involvement in prison makes them a danger to others. Is it inhumane to isolate them from other prisoners for 22 hours a day? We would say no. The fact that these individuals are committing crimes in prison suggests that they're failing to acknowledge the ethical indefensibility of their behavior. As such, the question of whether to punish them even more severely isn't an ethical one; you can't debate an ethical question with someone who doesn't accept your ethics as a constraint on their behavior. At that point, all you're left with is the technical question of how to protect yourself from them.

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