Home / Fall 2013 / Issue of the Week: California prohibits prison hunger strike

Issue of the Week: California prohibits prison hunger strike

by Von Kennedy


As a baby, some of us fondly remember our parents swirling a spoon full of baby food in an airplane-like manner in order for us to actually eat it, but what if Mom and Dad had a court order to ignore your wishes and shove it down your throat even if you protested?

A California judge has approved the right for prison officials to force-feed inmates that are protesting in a statewide hunger strike, a strike that is entering its eighth week.

The strike began on July 8 as a way for inmates to protest the detention of violent inmates and gang leaders in solitary confinement for long periods of time.  In its inception, nearly 29,000 of California’s 133,000 inmates participated. As time went on, the number dwindled to 130 loyal protesters still fighting the good fight.

I realize that “convicted criminals fighting the good fight” is oxymoronic, but in this case they are justified, and here are a few reasons why:

  • Even if they are outcasts of society, inmates are still citizens of the country. This means that they are protected by their First Amendment right to peacefully assemble and protest. These California inmates are not causing prison riots, fighting or committing other violent offenses to show their disapproval. They are just not eating.

One con that can arise from their right to peacefully assemble is the fact that assembling for a common cause while in prison is almost impossible between prisons, but their “affiliations” unite them. Workers strike daily under the unity of their federal unions, so just because they are not in the same city, state or under the same local employer, they are united and that goes for frustrated gang members as well.

  • Prison is all about structure and order, yet in these controlled environments, prisoners should have the right to express their opinion about the causes that they care about. For an inmate, making personal life choices is limited, so a statewide hunger strike should be allowed in order for inmates to express their individuality. For people who can no longer vote in a government election, this hunger strike shows that they still have some freedom of choice. Allowing protest in this form without the consequence of violence or solitary confinement could possibly lead to a more socially conscious inmates and spark a thirst for knowledge and peaceful debate rather than killing or fighting for bars of soap in the future.
  • Finally, if health is the central concern for corrections officers to want to break the hunger strike, I believe because of their right to peacefully assemble and express their opinion, they should be able to risk their health for a cause they believe in. Many civil rights leaders have participated in hunger strikes and I have not found one account of a government forcing them to eat. If someone wants to starve to prove a point, let them starve, and if corrections officials feel that their safety is in jeopardy, that concern should be redirected to the issue the inmates are fighting for instead of forcing a decision on them.

So next time there is a baby that doesn’t fall for the airplane trick, just remember that they have a right to refuse to be fed by their familial wardens.

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