How Did A Hunger Strike End Solitary Confinement

It’s been ten years since the California State Prison Hunger Strikes. While some changes have been made, some are still not enough.

Prison reform is a hot-button topic in America. From North to South, and East coast to the West, Americans are questioning the pre-school to prison pipeline. Many citizens question privatized prisons, just whether or not prisons are rehabbing criminals, or reinforcing lifestyle choices that lead them there in the first place. It is no secret that prison isn’t supposed to be a cakewalk, but bare minimums should exist in regards to inmate quality of life. After all, prisoners are people. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the California Prison Hunger Strike, it’s important to continue examining the role prisons play in society. It’s easy to think, “well they should have stayed out of trouble,” until it’s your son or little brother whose life changes in the blink of an eye. With their backs against the wall, and resources few and far between, these men decided to come up with a plan of action.

Within two weeks, two separate California prisoners went on a hunger strike to bring awareness to deteriorating facilities, conditions, and what some may consider cruel and unusual punishment. First, inmates at the Pelican Bay State Prison began the hunger strike on July 1, 2011, to the use of solitary confinement. Crazy demands, right? A week later, on July 8, 2011, High Desert State Prison inmates joined the Hunger Strike in solidarity, protesting unclean facilities, lack of nutrition and food quality, and access to the library.

Facts About Pelican Bay

Relatively new, the structure built in 1989 was supposed to house 2,380 inmates, held over 3,000 as of July 2011. At that time 1,111 inmates, nearly a third, were places in the SHU, or solitary confinement. SHU, the shorthand term for Special Housing Unit is a nice, discreet way to say solitary confinement without raising eyebrows. Inmates sent to the SHU spent 22 of 24 hours of their day in a cell no larger than 8 feet long. Besides a metal bed, stool, sink, and toilet, the inmates in the SHU had access to nothing else. Inmates in the SHU are allowed up to 2 hours out every day for medical or rec time, which is served in a similar size fenced, outdoor pin. The thoughts of cruel and unusual come to mind with these punishments, and the inmates had had enough. In California alone, 70% of inmate suicides occur in solitary confinement.

The majority of inmates serving time in the SHU were placed in those housing units due to “gang activity.” Ironically, it was the convening and organizing of gang leaders, as well as other inmates that made the 2011 hunger strike possible. Allowing it and the message to spread like wildfire through other California prisons in just days. The demands were clear and simple: 1) End group punishment and administrative abuse, 2) Modify active/nonactive gang status criteria, 3) Comply with US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement, 4) Provide adequate nutritious food, and 5) Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU status inmates.

Initially, when the story of the hunger strike broke, lawmakers dragged feet before agreeing to hold public hearings and address the prisoners’ concerns, sparking the number of participants to rise. The most jarring fact in all of this is that the hunger strike originally began in 2011, yet many prisons in America are still riddled with unsafe and unsanitary conditions, as well as abuse at the hands of staff.

The ability to connect and organize prisoners across multiple prisons is impressive. This story highlight two inmates serving sentences at California State Prisons at the time of the hunger strike. The strike was a result of the prison’s inhumane use of solitary confinement. Inmates at the prison have been subject to solitary confinement for years, some even decades or longer.

Inmate Accounts

Among those involved in the strike was world-renowned prisoner-artist, Donald “C-Note” Hooker. As a man who’s spent most of his life behind bars, C-Note has seen his share. Between serving time with famous inmates like Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez, Joe Hunt, Brothers Erik and Lyle Menéndez and other notorious criminals, and the heavy Gang culture in L.A., C-Note has one of the most real perspectives out.

C-Note credits his time in prison, and specifically his involvement in the hunger strikes as both a motivation and result for his art. Spending his time reading introduced him to the arts as expression, a passion he never pursued as a youth. Now due to the work of C-Note as well as other inmates, he can express his freedom more than ever which may be why he’s been named by Google as the most successful prison artist – producing music, interdisciplinary art, and even performing in theaters.

Min King X is another inmate who was present and active at the time of the hunger strike. Short for Minister King X, Min was only 24 when he went to prison and would spend 18 years paying for an admittedly poor decision. Between juvenile and adulthood, and the harsh sentences introduced by the super-predator Crime Bill in the 1990s, Min King X served nearly 25 years in correctional facilities. During his time in prison, he experienced the brunt of small cells and the effects of the SHU.

Min King X inside a California prison cell

During his time in Pelican Bay State Prison, King X founded an anti-hostilities group called Kings Against Genocidal Environments. The goal of this initiative was to tackle struggles both inside and outside of the prison walls. In many ways, KAGE was founded in direct response to the prison’s use of the SHU. The idea of KAGE, which eventually went on to include women and be known as United KAGE Brothers and Sisters International Union, is aimed at making peace the “new cool.” As opposed to the CDCRs divide and conquer tactics. The hunger strike took place ten years ago, still in 2021 the group advocates for prison safety and violence prevention through art and culture.

“When I look back at the historical hunger strike of July 2011, I think about the question that was on the minds of the California hunger strike representative body, ‘Will the sacrifice by starvation lead to death for some?’,” stated 70-year-old Louis Powell. Powell was a principal strike organizer who spent decades in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay.

“What was known for certain, the indefinite solitary confinement class was in desperate circumstances. Years and decades of sensory isolation had led to numerous deprivations with no relief. Parole was out of play, the California paroling Authority had never in it’s long history ever found a single person suitable for parole while under solitary confinement. I was one of four representatives for the black racial class. Each racial class had a team of four Representatives. I was selected to be the representative for having a social consciousness as well as foresight and understanding in the coming phenomena. Even with 12,000 hunger strikers at play, the hardline prisoncrats wouldn’t negotiate under good faith. They really didn’t have a clue about the hunger strike being well organized with contingency plans in place that would bring prison commerce to complete standstill by prisoners in the thousands refusing to eat.“

These hunger strikes required prisoners to work together, and even face retaliation in some instances. According to Donald “C-Note” Hooker, getting inmates in gen-pop (General population) to buy in was hard. Guards often went above and beyond, holding inmates in confinement to keep them separate from the main campus and knowledge about the strike. This division comes off as intentional as many of the prisoners in gen-pop who got involved face retaliation.

As we honor the ten-year anniversary of the California Prison Hunger Strikes, it is important to remember that those imprisoned are among some of the most vulnerable in society. With little access to the outside resources, and society outside that is often unwilling to listen or show concern, California inmates relied on what they had – each other. After 40 days of not eating, and harsh responses from a prison administrator, “They have every right to chose to die of starvation if they wish,” Nancy Kincaid, Director of Communications for California Correctional Health Services.

In total, over 6,000 inmates participated in the California Prison Hunger Strike. By day 14, that number dropped to roughly 600 strikers still participating. By day 18 down to 400 with some losing up to 29-pounds and becoming dangerously weak. Some still committed to following through until death if their demands were not met.

The response

As of July 7, 2011, the CDCR tried to play tough, refusing to even hear the inmates out. Stating the hunger strike had more to do with gang influence than actual merit-based concerns about health, safety, and cruel and unusual punishments. Eventually, the CDCR took action, but too little too late. Too often, inmates who have done time in the SHU experience extreme psychological trauma afterward. Many times inmates can spend up to two years in the SHU making that psychological damage irreversible. When prisons fail to reform criminals, it may be time to reform prisons.

The use of solitary confinement continues to be a problem in American prisons. Kalief Browder, a young man from the Bronx, NY, was jailed in Rikers Island in 2010 until 2013 without trial for stealing a backpack. Kalief killed himself in solitary confinement. His suicide sparked the attention of rappers like Jay X and Meek Mill who have since committed to prison reform. Kalief was 22. We appreciate these rappers for bringing awareness to the cause, but shoutout to those like C -Note, Min King X, and Louis Powell, who had to be creative in finding the strength and resources to do the work from inside the institution.

Still a long way to go

Ten years have passed since this hunger strike but prison reform has a long way to go. C-Note and Min King X know this all too well. To learn more about how to get involved with prison reform check out the Criminal Justice Initiative. To support the art and cultural initiatives of C-Note and Min King X check out their pages and show some love.

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