Possibility of Force-feeding Looms Over California Prisoners

by Samira Noorali
ITL Staff Writer

The prisoners’ hunger strike in California has trundled on for over twenty-three days and 561 inmates continue to hold their ground on an empty stomach.  In this historical uprising, state prisoners representing nine prisons are protesting in the face of their possible death as well as California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) promise to take disciplinary action against them.

The California inmates are demanding that the CDCR change a few of its policies surrounding indefinite isolation in Security Housing Units (SHU). While many prisoners are prepared to continue protesting to their demise, Correction Secretary Matthew Cate has stated he will seek a court order to force-feed.

CDCR’s slow progress with policy reform and its stated intent to force-feed have been met with wide criticism, but one thing is clear: there is a conflict between CDCR’s interest in maintaining order in its prisons and state inmates’ personal liberties. “Disturbances in the prison context may have consequences as to other inmates, and prison management is generally under the duty of care for the well-being of prisoners,” said Jamil Dakwar, Director of the Human Rights Program at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “but force-feeding presents a serious threat of danger and it causes severe pain and suffering.”

Proponents of force-feeding say that the process can be done without causing pain or medical problems, but Dakwar pointed to international medical standards and Guantanamo Bay inmates’ statements that tell a different story. He also stated that the “root causes” of prisoners’ hunger strikes need to be addressed rather than escalating the problem with force-feeding and additional restrictive measures. Jane E. Kahn, a California prisoners’ rights attorney blames overcrowding among other things for the stringent custodial policies and procedures employed by CDCR. “They still haven’t reduced the population to a point where constitutionally adequate care is being given.”

Recently, CDCR’s Press Secretary, Jeffrey Callison, confirmed that policies dealing with prisoners who are serving indeterminate sentences are changing and that CDCR is no longer placing inmates in a SHU based solely upon their validation unless there is a corresponding confirmed disciplinary behavior at the time of the original validation. “We have a two-year pilot program going on that involves case-by-case reviews of those serving indeterminate sentences in the SHUs,” said Callison, noting that around 400 such reviews have already happened and that there are “fewer people in the SHUs.”

Despite CDCR’s recent statements on policy reform, Kahn believes that timeframes in the SHUs remain too long.  “We are talking about harsh, windowless, tiny cement squares. They have no daylight… no sense of day or night. Housing in a SHU doesn’t contemplate movement for years and it has expanded.” She also expressed disappointment regarding the high number of prisoners being transferred into the SHUs, which includes inmates with mental health problems.

When asked about CDCR’s statements regarding policy reform, Kahn responded, “When they say they are planning to implement a new policy that has been drafted, it often takes months if not years to actually implement it. They really just plan to plan.”

The possibility of force-feeding in California prisons is looming, but in Guantanamo Bay, the practice has become a matter of course. On July 16, Federal Judge Rosemary M. Collyer stated that there is “nothing so shocking or inhumane in the treatment” referring to force-feeding in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

The World Medical Association guidelines and other international guidelines against force-feeding mentally competent and informed prisoners may eventually serve as a catalyst for change offshore. Still, the California prisoners cannot count on international principles that are not binding on California courts. Although California is one of few states that allows self-determination when it comes to force-feeding, Dakwar noted that “personal liberties in the U.S. are out of step with international norms and standards.”