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Hunger strike: California prisoners take charge for nonviolent change

At R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility, a Level 4 inmate waits in a temporary holding tank. These tanks are used when an inmate is in the process of being moved to the Administrative Segregation Unit and is deemed a threat to the safety and security of the institution. Photo: Angela Carone / KPBS

Editor's note: The California prisoners suspended the hunger strike on Sept. 5, 2013. Please visit for the latest information.

Small changes emerged following the California state prisons hunger strikes of summer 2011, but for the majority of the more than 14,000 prisoners held in extreme isolation, the torture continues. That’s why on Monday, July 8, nearly 30,000 California prisoners resumed the hunger strike until their demands for prison reforms are met.

AFSC’s Laura Magnani is on the mediation team that has served as the prisoners’ voice in meetings with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) throughout the past two years.

Though this hunger strike may become the largest in the state’s history, Laura says it’s not the numbers that matter. “It’s the decision-making process,” she says. “It’s the fact that they’ve aligned themselves with nonviolent principles.”

Strike participants at different facilities—nearly two-thirds of the state’s 33 prisons—added their own demands to the list created by the leaders at Pelican Bay State Prison, speaking to the variety of dehumanizing practices used throughout the system.

Stopping torture, starting healing Laura Magnani

Ending long-term solitarily confinement is one key demand for prisoners throughout the system.

Though the CDCR  is piloting a program that, once fully implemented, would allow some isolated prisoners to work through a four-year transition back into the general prison population, it’s been moving at an “excruciatingly slow” pace, says Laura. Only about 350 of over 14,000 held in isolation have been affected by the pilot to date. “A lot of people who have been in solitary for decades still don’t feel the change,” she says. 

Even if the program does roll out more broadly, the state has announced no plans to eliminate solitary confinement or introduce a cap on the length of time someone can be held. “Virtually everyone who studies solitary confinement says there should be a cap,” says Laura. Her 2008 report Buried Alive details the reality and psychological impacts of the practice. 

Another of the prisoners’ demands is creating and expanding programming and privileges—“things that would help you grow and learn,” explains Laura. Some examples they list are allowing a weekly phone call (instead of the sole annual call granted after the 2011 strike was suspended), expanding visiting time, and adding meaningful programming, not just workbooks in isolated cells.

“All studies show that people who can maintain relationships with their families have a much better outcome when they’re released,” says Laura. “What could possibly be the correctional intention behind keeping people far away from their loved ones?”

 [In the current issue of Quaker Action, Laura writes about how justice is best served by helping people heal and preventing further harm.]

Mobilizing a movement

Though little has changed on the inside since 2011, much has changed on the outside.

Laura explains that, for years, families didn’t know what was actually happening in the Security Housing Units, as the state deems them, because the men were trying to protect their loved ones from the painful truth. That changed in 2011 when, as part of the lead-up to the hunger strike, “they had to come out, to tell the truth. That’s been amazing.”

Watch: Video from the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition

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For the past two years, a coalition of supporters—including “many, many families and formerly incarcerated people”—has met weekly to organize on the outside.

“People are paying attention,” says Laura. “They’re outraged by what they’re learning. It’s the prisoners themselves who have made it happen by their own commitment and their sacrifice.”

Their efforts to mobilize people on the outside and inside add up to one of the biggest moments for change that Laura’s seen in four decades working on prison issues in California. “The huge significance is that it has put the plight of prisoners in solitary confinement on the front pages across the country.”

“This is huge.”


Let Californians know the world is watching

AFSC’s partners have created a number of ways for people in California and around the world to stand in solidarity with the striking prisoners.

Four things you can do now:

  1. Sign the pledge of resistance and organize your own solidarity actions
  2. Sign the petition to Gov. Brown calling for an end to solitary confinement
  3. Write to the strike representatives
  4. Join religious call for a just and humane end to hunger strike in California prisons

Please follow and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition's website for updates as the hunger strike continues.