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Over 200 People Went On Hunger Strike After Months In Lockdown At California Prison

Corcoran state prison has a history of abuse that includes forcing prisoners into ‘gladiator fights.’

Aerial view of California State Prison, CorcoranWikimedia Commons/CRDC

Laura (not her real name) hasn’t seen her husband or heard his voice in over three months—and neither has their son.

“It’s hard because we’re both each other’s support system,” Laura told The Appeal. “It hurts me to even talk about it because I have a son and it bothers me that he can’t talk to him, and even hear his voice or anything.”

Laura’s husband is incarcerated at Corcoran state prison in California and is one of 333 people the prison has put under lockdown since September.

On Sept. 23, after a fight occurred in the yard, units at Facility 3C at the Corcoran state prison in California were put on partial lockdown, or what the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) calls “modified programming.”

People incarcerated in the affected units have been locked in their cells for 23 hours a day with their cellmate. Their only time outside is for an hour in the yard or when a nurse checked their vitals. During the lockdown, there is no canteen access (besides hygiene item purchases), and there are no law library visits, visitations or phone calls; the only way to respond to the outside world is through letters. It is even more restrictive than her husband’s time in solitary confinement, Laura said.

On Jan. 9, about three months into the lockdown, 270 prisoners decided to go on a hunger strike, refusing meals from the CDCR. Prisoners and their supporters say the strike was in direct response to the lockdown that they described as unnecessarily cruel group punishment.

The lockdown was just driving people up the wall and instituting a state of total fear.

Brooke organizer with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC)

Since the entire prison—consisting of 3,339 incarcerated people—isn’t locked down, the CDCR doesn’t consider it a lockdown but a “modified program.” Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary for the CDCR, described the modified program as limiting prisoners’ movements after an “incident or unusual occurrence.”

“Modified programs last no longer than necessary to restore safety and security,” Thornton told The Appeal in an email.

The hunger strike, prisoners and their supporters say, was out of desperation. “The lockdown was just driving people up the wall and instituting a state of total fear,” Brooke, an organizer with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a prison union that has helped coordinate recent strikes, told The Appeal.

“Imagine locking yourself in the bathroom and not eating for three weeks. And that’s easy. You’re not enduring constant abuse and taunts and all the other violence, that kind of hopelessness that prisons and guards inflict,” he said.

According to IWOC, prisoners on hunger strike sent the group a list of six demands that included: lifting the lockdown, allowing visits, allowing people to attend rehabilitation and vocational programs, and giving prisoners their 10 hours of mandatory outdoor exercise.

The hunger strike ended on Jan. 28 with 245 prisoners still participating, as prisoners thought that some of their demands—like being able to make all canteen purchases and receiving more packages—would be addressed after talks with the warden. However, organizers said, the warden has not met any of their demands and the partial lockdown continues. The CDCR did not respond to questions on whether the warden held talks or backed off promises made to the strikers.

“CSP-Corcoran officials are doing all they can to return to normal program. No one knows when the 333 inmates on Facility 3C will be returned to normal program but we hope it is soon,” Thornton said. “Prison officials’ first priority is the safety and security of everyone who lives in the prison and everyone who works there.”

Corcoran prison has a history of abuse. In 1994, multiple guards blew the whistle on torture and physical abuse in the prison, reporting that guards would beat shackled people arriving from new prisons in a ritual called “greet the bus” and force prisoners to stand barefoot on hot asphalt.  Another revelation was the “gladiator fights,” where guards orchestrated fights between prisoners and bet on the winner. Some of these fights, according to whistleblowers, would end in the guards shooting prisoners who would refuse to stop fighting. At the time, the prison had the highest number of prisoner deaths in the state. The whistleblowing led to an FBI investigation into the prison—where CDCR officials were accused of trying to cover up internal evidence. Eight guards were charged with conspiring to violate the constitutional rights of prisoners but were eventually acquitted.  

Guards would beat shackled people arriving from new prisons in a ritual called “greet the bus” and force prisoners to stand barefoot on hot concrete.

Widespread hunger strikes aren’t unheard of in California. One of the largest prison strikes in U.S. history occurred in 2013 when 30,000 people in the state’s prisons refused meals and refused to work to protest indefinite solitary confinement. The 2013 strike was a follow-up to a smaller hunger strike in 2011 to protest solitary confinement. People held in California’s local jails have also organized hunger strikes in recent years to protest the jails’ use of solitary. Across the country, jails and prisons lock down units and sometimes entire prisons for days, weeks, or months with little to no notice to prisoners or family members. For most facilities, it is essentially like putting an entire unit or prison on solitary confinement until further notice: Prisoners are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, often eating in there and only coming out for the bare necessities, if that.

“Group punishment like this is not atypical,” Brooke said. “This isn’t an extraordinary occurrence. Sometimes whole blocks are locked down for a whole year at a time. And it largely goes licensed and justified by the state’s culture of violence, by the way it defines people according to gang ‘affiliation.’ And with no regard whatsoever for actual de-escalation or dealing with harm.”

These conditions can push prisoners to put their bodies on the line, Brooke said.

“To actually be long-term lifers and face that level of helplessness, that’s why so many prisoners find it so easy to go on hunger strike and devour themselves in an act of resistance. … There’s nothing left,” Brooke explained. “So why not destroy yourself and let your heart be eaten alive?”