It all began with an amazing victory: A federal judge declared California's prison medical system unconstitutional.
In 2005, Judge Thelton Henderson found in Plata v Schwarzenegger on behalf of California's inmates that California's prison medical system was in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution. Based on his findings, he ordered the system placed under a federal receiver.
Fast forward to July, 2013. The medical system is still under the control of a federal receiver - despite repeated attempts by California's Governor, Jerry Brown, to claim that the state has rectified the problems inherent in the original order. Plaintiffs' lawyers in Plata are still active, attempting to ensure California carries out these constitutionally mandated reforms.
At Pelican Bay, Corcoran and Tehachapi a group of prisoners, despairing over non-medical conditions in the SHU (solitary confinement units) at these facilities, have come together to initiate a hunger strike involving an unprecedented 30,000 inmates. It begins on July 8th, making five core demands.
As days turn into weeks, the number of strikers decline. Yet hundreds of men continue on with the hunger strike. With some having signed forms (advanced medical directives) instructing medical personnel not to resuscitate them, California's politicians and prison administrators are faced with a) negotiating, b) having these people die as they said they would be willing to do, or c) figuring out how to legally force feed them.
California authorities won court approval on Monday to force-feed some prisoners on a hunger strike after officials voiced concerns that the inmates may have been coerced into refusing food in a protest against the state's solitary confinement policies.
U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson, responding to a request by state authorities, ruled that California prison doctors may force-feed select inmates who are near death, even if they had signed orders asking not to be resuscitated.
(Note: Updated with the latest developments, reworked and republished from Thursday afternoon in hopes of a wider audience.)
Those participating in the hunger strike were aghast. Anne Weills, an attorney working with the hunger strikers, wrote in a memo she gave me a copy of last week:
On Monday August 19th, they ((the hunger strikers)) feel incredibly betrayed by Judge Henderson who signed an order that was put before him and signed by attorneys for the Medical Receiver's office, Kamala Harris, the Attorney General... and Donald Spector, the lead attorney in the Plata who heads the Prison Law Office (PLO).My understanding is that there was no evidentiary hearing because all the parties in the Plata lawsuit: the Receiver, the State, and the plaintiff's lawyers. agreed on the order.
The hunger strikers felt shocked and blindsided by the fact that the order signed by Judge Henderson asserts that there is a presumption that the advanced medical directives that may have been signed by anyone who has been hunger striking since July 8th is invalid because that person may have been coerced to sign by a leader of an alleged gang...
There is not one shred of evidence that has been presented to Judge Henderson that someone has been coerced to sign anything... Where are the declarations of such a person? ... Is this a fraud being perpetrated on an honorable federal judge who trusts the Plata plaintiff's attorneys? Why was there no evidentiary hearing?
But what does the Plata lawsuit have to do with the hunger strikers? Why does the issue even fall under Plata? The order concerns medical treatment of the hunger strikers, and medical treatment falls under the aegis of the Federal Medical Receiver, whose has responsibility under Plata.
Do the plaintiff's lawyers in the Plata case represent the hunger strikers? Only in a very general way, since they represent all prisoners because Plata was a class action suit involving all those incarerated in California state facilities.
Does anyone represent the hunger strikers in this matter? Anne Weills, other attorneys and the Center for Constitutional Rights represent the hunger strikers and other prisoners in their lawsuit, Asker v Brown, challenging California's solitary confinement policy as cruel and unusual punishment. But that does not extend to Plata.
How then did these plaintiff's lawyers come to this "agreement" with the state of California to go before Judge Henderson and ask for this force-feeding order? This is a very good question to which I have no answer. What I do know (having been told by some of the lawyers working with the hunger strikers) is that the Plata lawyers never contacted the hunger strikers' lawyers or the hunger strikers themselves. Not a hint, not a whisper that this was coming.
Blindsided - in so many words.
Outmanuevered - by desperate yet wily California officials and their legal team.
Cold Decked - given a hand to play in court that they could not win.
Betrayed, by people who a) are clearly not representing their wishes and b) should, after all, have known better, as their banner proclaims:
One can only assume that the Plata lawyers were brought to this by some kind of incredible pressure applied by California's politicians and prison authorities (as these lawyers certainly are not stupid, we cannot assert incompetence as we otherwise might using Hanlon's Razor. Nor does malice seem plausible).
Prison Law Office
Protecting the constitutional rights of California prisoners.
California's officials are desperate for this action to continue to be non-news. The deaths of inmates would interrupt their carefully spun narrative that the entire fifty two days of protest by hundreds of men willing to risk their lives came about because some "gang leaders" decided they would like to get out of solitary.
They don't want a full-page ad running in the LA Times calling out Brown et al to become commonplace.
They'd prefer that tweets like this
51 prisoners at Pelican Bay have been transferred to a medical facility in prep for force feeding. #CAHungerStrike— OLAASM (@OLAASM) August 28, 2013
not go viral.
Recognition by the public that California is, in fact, torturing people on whim would be, to say the least, counterproductive to Brown's continued attempts to fightwith Federal judges to reduce California's prison population. Nor would it aid Brown's latest ploy to demand that the Legislature allocate money from California's shallow reserve to lease additional prison cells.
The pressure is mounting.
The California Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement calling for the resolution of "this argument life threatening situation." They offered their services on an investigative committee into "alleged human rights violations."
Then they went on to say
We oppose the increasing use of isolation units, especially in the absence of due process and the monitoring and professional assessment of the effects of such confinement on the mental health of inmates...On Friday, two members of the California legislature promised hearings on the conditions prompting the hunger strike.
We stand opposed to any form of unjust, inhumane treatment. While it may be that isolation mitigates gang activity, placing humans in isolation in a Secure Housing Unit (SHU) has no restorative or rehabilitative purpose. It is not a sustainable solution to legitimate security concerns.
The issues raised by the hunger strike are real - concerns about the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California's prisons are real and can no longer be ignored," Senator Hancock and Assemblymember Ammiano said in a joint statement. Assemblymember Ammiano said further, "The Courts have made clear that the hunger strikers have legitimate issues of policy and practice that must be reviewed. The Legislature has a critical role in considering and acting on their concerns. We cannot sit by and watch our state pour money into a system that the US. Supreme Court has declared does not provide constitutionally acceptable conditions of confinement and that statistics show has failed to increase public safety."It's time for Brown's fears to come true. It's time for everyone to start paying attention.
This is the 2nd part of a two-parter on recent events surrounding the California Prisoners' Hunger Strike. Part I is
This is also part of a multi-diary series on the California Prisoners' Hunger Strike, beginning in early June, 2013: