After nearly three weeks, the prisoners in the solitary confinement unit at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison have ended their hunger strike. Corrections officials made some immediate concessions on July 21, prompting the inmates to break their fasts, and begin work on long-term changes.  Mediators for the strike leaders say the men extend their deepest thanks to supporters outside, and credit that support with this success.

Mediators report the leaders  consider this victory the beginning of a movement to hold corrections officials accountable to carry out the changes they promised.

The hunger strike began July 1, and quickly spread to ten other institutions across the state’s prison system. Corrections officials have acknowledged that 6,500 inmates refused food on the first day.

Laura Magnani, who heads the American Friends Service Committee’s San Francisco office, is one of the inmate-chosen mediators for the Pelican Bay hunger strikers.  This appointment follows her many years working to improve prison conditions.  She has flagged the conditions in isolation units as “so dehumanizing, it’s almost unimaginable,” describing near-constant noise and cell extractions by guards who barge into cells and put prisoners in hog-ties.

Pelican Bay State Prison is a controversial maximum security facility. The hunger strikers’ demands include an end to indefinite solitary confinement and group punishment, and an end to the requirement that inmates in solitary share information about other inmates as a condition for release into the general population.

Laura joins the other mediators to thank everyone who signed petitions, wrote letters to prison officials and Gov. Jerry Brown, and attended demonstrations to raise awareness of the issues around the strike. She and the other inmate advocates will monitor the corrections department to make sure it meets the prisoners’ core demands in the months ahead.

AFSC urges the public to continue to raise awareness around the demands  by sending letters to Governor Jerry Brown and prison officials, hold teach-ins, vigils and demonstrations.

Laura’s work reflects AFSC’s long history of addressing solitary confinement. After receiving inmate letters in the 1980s, AFSC began a national effort, the Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons. Through the years AFSC operated the Prison Watch program and, most recently, the  Stopmax campaign. Our programs have described conditions of isolation, shared inmates’ experiences  and helped inmates cope with solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement, characterized by 23-hour a day lockout with minimal exercise and lack of human contact, affects an estimated 100,000 inmates in federal and state prisons in almost every state. The use of solitary confinement has exploded in the U.S.  While prison populations have increased 28 percent, administrative segregation (permanent classification) increased 31 percent and disciplinary (“temporary” classification) increased 68 percent.

The isolation of solitary confinement severely affects all inmates’ mental health, making re-entry to society all the more difficult. For those with pre-existing mental conditions, such consequences are even worse.

AFSC believes that solitary confinement violates the eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution's cruel and unusual punishment clause. The United Nations Committee Against Torture has found that the practice violates international law, as well. 

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