Prison hunger strike

This past week 4,100 California prisoners confined in maximum security sites have refused at least nine consecutive meals, meeting the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) standard for reporting a hunger strike. About 12,000 prisoners are reported by the Federal Receiver's office to have refused some meals this week.

The inmates began a hunger strike July 1 that lasted three weeks. The CDCR agreed to make significant changes in operation of the supermax prisons. But inmates say the CDCR has failed to keep its promises. And so this week the inmates resumed their fast.

The inmates have five demands: Hold individuals accountable instead of meting out group punishment; require more proof of gang membership than one inmate's word or innocuous association; end long-term solitary confinement; provide adequate food; provide and expand constructive programming and privileges.

The CDCR is threatening, among other sanctions, to withhold commissary privileges, a particularly ironic punishment for hunger strikers.

California Prison Focus describes prison conditions and offers actions we can take in support of the inmates.

I've been thinking about these hunger strikers a great deal, remembering my own brief fasts, and remembering too the history of fasting and the strategy of taking suffering upon ourselves to accomplish a goal.

Fasting is a practice of mindfulness: that small stomach vibration, the growl, recollects me to my being. Discomfort reminds me I have purpose. I think about the fasting inmates in California. At about day four they pass this initial stage of craving for food and for a couple of weeks they feel vibrant. Their thoughts are clear and their hopes high though they will tire easily. But at 25 or 30 days into their fast, they will be hungry again. This second hunger marks danger. The body has devoured its fat and will turn now to muscle and organ tissue for energy. Forty days is pretty near the limit the body can withstand the lack of food without incurring permanent damage.

The Irish hunger strikes have been described as fasts on England, a syntax meant to remind us of curses. In 1981, 10 Catholic/nationalist prisoners went on hunger strike. On behalf of the prison population they demanded prisoner-of-war status, refusing to wear prison clothes, do prison work, or bear the label of criminal.

Bobby Sands died first, on May 5, after 66 days without food, then Francis Hughes (59 days), Patsy O'Hara (61 days), Raymond McCreesh (61 days), Joe McDonnell (61 days), Martin Hurson (46 days), Kevin Lynch (71 days), Kieran Doherty (73 days), Thomas McElwee (62 days), Michael Devine (60 days). There's a song about the fifth man, Joe McDonnell in that year, "when everything was lost and nothing won," that names all 10. I was at the 20-year memorial march for Joe McDonnell in Belfast, and I heard the applause break out for each man when this song was sung.

The deaths of these 10 Catholic republicans, whom British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called thugs, profoundly changed the nature of the Irish struggle there. It had been a small civil rights movement that drew terrible new violence down onto the entire Catholic community and thus mobilized a new Provisional IRA. Then on April 10, 1981, Bobby Sands was elected to Westminster on the Sinn Fein ticket and soon he and the others went willingly to death. They gave the community a collective vision, what Gandhi might call heart-unity, tens of thousands accompanying their coffins to their graves. While that numinous experience was transient, it infused the community with an appreciation that resistance had more faces than violence. The hunger strikers linked Irish republicanism to the inner light of satyagraha.

Gandhi articulated the theory and developed the practice of political resistance by suffering. Satyagraha willingly carries the burden of the enemy: standing unarmed in the path of an army, walking unarmed to the sea to collect untaxed salt, enduring beatings and arrests, fasting to death. Practitioners pressure opponents into submission by refusing to oppress them. It was from Gandhi that Martin Luther King learned these principles of non-violent resistance, though fasting was not a primary tool of the American civil rights struggle.

Fasting is also an overtly religious act to purify the body, purify motives, and build community. Jews fast on Yom Kippur to express sorrow and repentance for their sins. Islamic scholars stress the community aspects of the Ramadan fast. Buddhist fasts serve as reminders of our transitory nature. Trappist monks fast to bear the burden of the world's sin as well as their own.

Jesus is the eminent model for strategic fasting, that is, fasting as a long-range plan to gain an end, in this case a spiritual end. After 40 days in the desert without food, he resisted the temptations of wealth and power and later advised his disciples that some devils can be driven out only by prayer and fasting.

The inmates in the California supermax prison sections have embarked on fasting as a tactic in a battle to win privileges. They have also chosen fasting as a strategy for waging war against an unjust system. And they have also taken suffering upon themselves in order to gain a better life for their brothers and sisters. I'm sure this fast is driving out their devils. I only hope it is also softening the hearts of their jailers, the California legislators and administrators who devised these cruel isolation cells.


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