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Prisoners on Hunger Strike Show Signs of Starvation, Official Wants to Force-Feed

| July 20, 2011
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Aerial shot of Pelican Bay State Prison. Photo: WikiMedia

Aerial shot of Pelican Bay State Prison. Photo: WikiMedia

Hundreds of California prisoners are approaching three weeks on a hunger strike, including a few showing signs of starvation. 
The strike protesting the conditions in Security Housing Units began at Pelican Bay State Prison on July 1, and has since spread to other prisons across the state.

Prisoners in SHUs spend 23 hours a day in their cells and one hour in a windowless, concrete exercise pen.

The protesters want an end to indefinite detention in those units — which they say amounts to torture. They also say they’re prepared to die to force prison officials to meet their demands. But Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate says he’ll intervene to save their lives.

“My view of it as I sit here today, and this may change, is that I’ll seek court orders to ask that they be force-fed,” said Cate.

Approximately a dozen of the striking inmates have signed advance health directives that order prison medical staff not to feed or treat them, no matter what. But Secretary Cate thinks he can persuade a judge to override those directives. He’ll also seek an order that would apply to any inmate who refuses food and whose health is in danger.

In an interview with California Watch reporter Michael Montgomery, however, Nancy Kincaid, Communications Director for California Prison Health Care Services, said prison medical staff will not force-feed the prisoners should their condition deteriorate.

“Inmates have the right to refuse food to the point of death,” she said. “And physicians will not force-feed, go against the medical ethics if someone chooses to not eat.”

Kincaid also describes the physical condition of some of the inmates who have lost 15-20 pounds and are showing more advanced symptoms from starvation.

Listen to that interview here:

Nancy Kincaid of California Prison Health Care Services on the hunger strike

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Update Thursday Jul 21
The California Report’s Sarah Varney did a report yesterday on the medical ethics involved in dealing with hunger strikes. Listen below:

Here are some numbers related to the strikes, according to California Prison Health Care Services:

Tehachapi
228 (additional 168 joined yesterday)
40 assessed by RNs, 3 referred to PCP for evaluation; one refused
47 hunger strike participants refused assessments
All are consuming liquids
0 refused meds
1 IV fluids
2 referred to (TTA) clinic
0 in outside facility
20 have lost 10 or more lbs.  Highest loss is 29 lbs, but that inmate was last weighed in May and staff believe some of that loss was prior to the hunger strike.

Corcoran
92 on the strike (17 transferred from Pelican Bay)
42 began strike yesterday
22 assessed by nurses
10 refused (Kincaid met with several inmates who refused assessments and asked why. All said they just didn’t feel they needed one that day, and have had assessments in the past and will again if they feel they need one).
Kincaid also observed assessments of Pelican Bay transfers and spoke with several inmates)
All consuming liquids
0 refused meds
0 IV fluids
0 in emergency clinic
3 referred to GACH for medical evaluation. Three were PB transfers who had some symptoms of starvation, such as dehydrated and lightheaded. All 3 are stable, with no critical health issues..
0 in outside medical facility
7 have lost 10 lbs or more

Pelican Bay
75 on hunger strike
75 offered assessments,
5 scheduled to see PCP
# refused assessments was unknown at time of report
All consuming liquids
0 IV fluids
0 in emergency clinic
0 in outside facility
8 greater than 10 lbs lost
17 transferred to Corcoran state prison, to be near medical resources, should their condition require medical treatment for starvation symptoms or they decide to eat and need medical supervision for refeeding.
All four institutions have incurred some overtime and registry use for LVNs and RNs.

Calipatria (These inmates are on their own hunger strike with issues separate from the statewide strike)
33 on hunger strike
22 assessed by RNs, 7 of those seen by primary care physician (PCP) – all stable no health issues
11 refused assessment
0 refused PCP assessment
All are consuming liquids
0 IV fluids
0 refused meds
1 sent to clinic for evaluation, stable and no medical issues
0 in outside medical facility
Still 12 have lost 10 or more lbs. Highest weight loss is 22 lbs. Those who have lost 10 or more lbs. are monitored regularly. Once an inmate loses 10% of their body weight, they are monitored more closely for physical signs of starvation.

For more about why the prisoners are striking, read our interview with Michael Montgomery, who breaks it all down.

[KPCC's Julie Small contributed to this story.]

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  • Kim Albanese

    If you do a little more digging, you’ll find there are possibly six more prisons that have inmates participating in the hunger strike (if not more!): Centinela, Sierra Conservation Center, Folsom, RJ Donovan, San Quentin, and Valley State Prison for Women.

  • Carl ToersBijns

    The mere fact that the prisoners received such vast exposure on this matter will result in closer reviews of correctional practices and policies. Regardless of the outcome, the administration will have to change some things to prevent too much political pressure and exposure on their own management of prisons before the feds make an issue out of other concerns and take them to court again.. This is an eye opener for the entire system and will result in anticipated changes one way or another…