“I refuse to participate in this criminal act,” a Guantanamo Bay nurse reportedly told his superiors after refusing to force-feed inmates at the controversial prison last month.
Inmates at a not-so-secret US-run prison in Afghanistan use hunger strikes as their only means to object to severe restrictions that prevent them from legally challenging their detention and the prison’s terribly unsanitary conditions, a report from The Guardian revealed.
A lawsuit filed in July against the head of the California prison system marks the one year anniversary of the largest hunger-strike in U.S. history. It began last July when over 30,000 people inside California prisons began refusing meals in protest of the state’s excessive use of indefinite solitary confinement.
Together, these actions represent a broader rejection of the inhumane conditions people inside the US-managed prison system, at home and abroad, endure on a daily basis. A system that increasingly is at odds not only with the Constitution, but with humanity by continuing to use excessive solitary confinement, a practice that has been strongly condemned by human rights groups as cruel and illegal.
The UN Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights called force-feeding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay prison a “flagrant violation of international human rights law.” And the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment Juan Mendez has said that “as little as fifteen days in solitary confinement can constitute torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”
Solitary forms no part of any legally mandated punishment in most prison systems. If it did, it would be actionable under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” It is instead defined as “administrative segregation,” a nebulous grey area determination that is abused by prison systems to punish inmates indefinitely.
In California, the hunger strikes drove home the desperation of inmates who have been isolated for years. And in some cases, decades. The California State authorities’ own figures show that in 2011 more than 500 prisoners had spent more than ten years in the isolation units at Pelican Bay State Prison and 78 had been there for 20 years or more. And the strikes have had a big impact. California legislators have held multiple hearings on reforming policies in their prisons and some easing of rules has occurred. In particular, at Pelican Bay, where the hunger strikes originated, prisoners in solitary confinement are now allowed more visits with family members and access to basic necessities like clothing and bowls. Additionally, legislation that would limit the use of solitary confinement is making its way through the California Assembly after passing the Senate in June. This is welcome news. The isolation of solitary confinement severely affects all inmates’ mental health, making re-entry to society all the more difficult.
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