California Healthline Daily Edition

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Prison Hunger Strike Prompts Hearings on Use of Solitary Confinement

Last week, California lawmakers said that they would hold hearings this fall on the use of solitary confinement in state prisons in response to a weeks-long hunger strike by inmates, the Los Angeles Times reports (St. John, Los Angeles Times, 8/30).

Background on Hunger Strike

In July, 30,000 inmates began refusing meals to protest the use of security housing units for indefinite isolation of certain prisoners as a way to manage prison gangs.

Members of the hunger strike -- organized by inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison -- seek a five-year limit on such isolation, as well as new educational and rehabilitation programs.

In August, a federal judge approved a request from prison officials and the Prison Law Office to have authority to force-feed inmates when they are at risk of "near-term death or great bodily injury" or when they are deemed incompetent to make their own medical decisions.

The filing also asked that medical officials at the prisons have the authority to override do-not-resuscitate requests that they believe inmates might have been coerced into signing. The filing calls for DNRs signed at or near the beginning of the strike to be automatically invalidated (California Healthline, 8/21).

Update on Strike

As of last Friday, 41 inmates had refused prison-issued meals since the strike officially began on July 8.

Another 123 inmates have refused food for shorter periods of time.

Liz Gransee -- a spokesperson for the court-appointed federal receiver overseeing prison health care in California -- said prisoners participating in the strike are monitored daily and seen by a physician at least once each week.

The majority of inmates who are refusing meals are consuming about 625 calories daily through vitamins and Gatorade, according to Reuters.

So far, the state has not invoked its ability to force-feed inmates.

However, 13 inmates have lost more than 10% of their body weight, while two have lost more than 15% of their body weight, according to Gransee. In addition, hundreds of prisoners in the strike have been treated at prison health clinics, hospitals and other facilities (Bernstein, Reuters, 8/30).

Following a recent meeting with participating inmates, Gransee said the prisoners "complained of dizziness and were pale and thin but still engaging and coherent."

Lawmakers Call for Hearing

State Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) -- chair of the Senate public safety committee -- said that she and Assembly member Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) plan to hold hearings on solitary confinement practices and other prison issues because the "impasse needs to be broken."

Inmates' advocates called the announcement a "positive step."

Deborah Hoffman -- a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation -- said the hearings will give prison officials a chance to show "all of the substantive reforms that have taken place" in the prison system (Los Angeles Times, 8/30).

This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.