on the world: a view on human rights
The current hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay has reminded the world that it, and the arbitrary unlawful regime it represents, have not gone anywhere in the past eleven years. The protest began on 6 February in response to alleged prisoner abuse and worsening conditions of detention, as well as against perpetual indefinite detention without charge or trial.
In almost six months, no attempt has been made to address the prisoners’ lawful demands; instead, the situation has been countered with increasing repression, the use of plastic bullets and violent assault against debilitated prisoners, solitary confinement since April, intrusive physical searches tantamount to sexual assault prior to legal visits, and force feeding.
Not as well known is that many of these conditions and similar abuses also exist in US prisons. The United States has the largest prisoner population in the world, of over two million adults. Violence and sexual abuse occur daily in US prisons. At any one time, over 80,000 men, women and children are held in solitary confinement. The use of solitary confinement has serious physiological and psychological consequences.
The state of California, with around 120,000 inmates, has the largest prisoner population in the US. Prisons suffer from serious overcrowding, so much so that the state is planning to release thousands of prisoners before the end of their sentences. In July, it was reported that over 150 women at one prison were illegally sterilised between 2006 and 2010; this is not the first time such allegations have been reported by male and female prisoners. In addition, 11,000 people are held in solitary confinement. It is home to the Pelican Bay State Prison, which includes a Special Housing Unit (SHU), where almost one third of its 3,500 inmates are held in prolonged solitary confinement. This involves spending “22.5 hours a day alone in windowless cells measuring about 7 x 11 feet. The remaining 90 minutes are spent, also alone, in bare concrete exercise pens.” Sensory deprivation, due to lack of exposure to natural sunlight and the use of perpetual artificial lighting, is an element of this.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, has called for a global ban on the use of prolonged solitary confinement, any period of over 15 days. At Pelican Bay, over 500 prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for over a decade, “nearly 80 have been there for more than two decades, and one prisoner recently marked his 40th year in solitary”. Amnesty International states: “No other US state is believed to have held so many prisoners for such long periods in indefinite isolation.”
On 8 July, prisoners across California went on hunger strike in solidarity with the prisoners at Pelican Bay to protest the use of prolonged solitary confinement. From an initial 30,000 prisoners on hunger strike on the first day, by the third week, the figure was reported to be around 1000. Repressive measures have also been an element of this hunger strike. Punitive measures have included the removal of personal items and restricted access to lawyers, as well as “administrative segregation” for 14 strike leaders. Amnesty International has reported, “A core group of hunger strikers in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Units claim the prison authorities have blasted cold air into their cells, as well as confiscated fluids, hygiene products and legal materials.” Hunger strikers have also reported that they are being denied medical treatment and observation of their condition, a further abuse of their rights.
This is not the first hunger strike at either facility. A large hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay in 2005 brought about improvements in conditions. At Pelican Bay, prison authorities were informed well in advance that prisoners would resort to this form of peaceful protest on 8 July if previous demands made were not met. In July and September 2011, prisoners there and in solidarity elsewhere in California held two three-week long hunger strikes. Few changes were made as a result and a promised prisoner status review has barely materialised. The prisoners’ five core demands remain the same, and in both cases, there are outstanding court cases related to the hunger strikes.
The prisoners and the legitimate aims they seek have been disparaged; the unspecifiable, “secret” security threat the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay pose continues to be alleged, while the Pelican Bay protest is reported to be a “massive gang conspiracy”. The legitimacy of the prisoners’ action is no doubt strengthened by the fact that in the face of violent repression all have chosen to resort to and maintain non-violent action of the only kind available to them in their situation.
While the prisoners at Guantánamo are best classified as political prisoners or hostages, those held at Pelican Bay have been convicted of serious crimes, with the hunger strikes set up by convicted murderers; there is nonetheless a clear line between serving a lawful sentence and being subject to torture and cruel and degrading treatment. Prolonged solitary confinement is also used against prisoners in pre-trial and immigration detention.
Hunger strikes can be fatal. Out of the nine deaths at Guantánamo Bay, eight of the deceased prisoners had previously taken part in sustained hunger strikes. The California hunger strike allegedly claimed its first victim on 22 July in 32-year old Billy Sell, convicted of attempted murder and held in solitary confinement at an SHU in Corcoran State Prison. He had reportedly asked for medical assistance days before he died, 14 days into the hunger strike. The prison officials claim he committed suicide, whereas those who knew him and supporters of the hunger strikers claim he is a victim of the very system he was protesting against. The various deaths in suspicious circumstances at Guantánamo Bay have also been labelled “suicide”.
Force-feeding prisoners is the chosen method of keeping prisoners alive against their will, with Barack Obama claiming “I don’t want these individuals [at Guantánamo] to die”. A non-issue outside of the US, where it has long been held to be legally and medically unjustifiable, and condemned by the UN as “torture”, force-feeding of prisoners has not yet been an issue in California, one of three states whose judges have ruled against force-feeding prisoners in the past. There are no national statistics kept on prisoners who are force fed in the US but the practice, which has also been the subject of court cases, takes place in the exact same way in the US mainland too. Bill Coleman, a Connecticut prisoner who has not consumed solid food since 2007 is force fed in this way.
Six Guantánamo prisoners had been on hunger strike and force fed for more than a year before this mass hunger strike began. Djamel Ameziane, cleared for release but for whom it is unsafe to return to his native Algeria, has been on hunger strike since 2008. While some prisoners have suspended their hunger strike for part or all of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, this does not constitute a sign of the end or a let-up in the prisoners’ protest. For dozens who have continued, they still face force-feeding at the end of the fast. The US rejected calls to suspend force-feeding for this period.
Writing about the July 2011 Pelican Bay hunger strike, Solitary Watch campaigners James Ridgeway and Jean Cassella stated, “they achieved something much more important, as well: For a few weeks, the men of the Pelican Bay SHU ceased to be invisible.” Given the extreme and dangerous nature of a hunger strike, the known backlash they will face, the fact that prisoners – not just held by or in the US – resort to such desperate measures, given the limited means available to them, says as much about the failure of the system as it does about the failings of those outside of it, who have greater resources available to them, to stand up against indefinite detention, solitary confinement and torture. The prisoners’ protest does not just speak volumes about the system but about us, about those who simply stand by and watch, year after year. A real change can only come about, and the prisoners’ demands taken seriously, if those who challenge the system from within are supported by those from without. These hunger strikes demonstrate that the problems will not go away or be repressed by force, more false promises or lies about those involved. With the longest hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay and the largest one in California’s history ongoing, the time for a change is now. Will you be a part of it?