Advocates call for investigation of Corcoran prison death; medical professionals, religious leaders and prisoners’ families demand governor negotiate with hunger strikers
by Isaac Ontiveros, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition
Mediators working on behalf of California prisoners on hunger strike are calling for an independent investigation into the July 22 death of Billy “Guero” Sell, a prisoner held in solitary confinement at Corcoran State Prison and a participant in the three-week-long hunger strike that has shaken the California prison system. Sell’s death is being ruled a suicide by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Prison officials met with mediators last Tuesday but failed to disclose the fact that a hunger strike participant had died the previous day.
“We are calling for an independent investigation to determine the circumstances around Sell’s death, not just the ultimate cause,” said Ron Ahnen of the mediation team. “The CDCR could have negotiated the demands of the prisoners well before the strike began. Had they done so, I am convinced that Billy Sell would still be with us today.”
Fellow prisoners reported that Sell had been requesting medical attention for several days prior to his death. Attorneys have received numerous reports of medical neglect of the health needs of the strikers, and these reports have generated an outcry from the medical community. Over 100 health care providers have signed onto a letter denouncing the CDCR’s failure to provide appropriate medical care to the strikers. It says in part:
“We urge CDCR to ensure that no prisoner on hunger strike be disciplined or threatened with the denial of medical care, that prisoners not be denied liquids, vitamins or any other form of sustenance they are willing to take, and that they receive appropriate medical care. We demand all medical professionals uphold their code of ethics and maintain the highest standards of care for all their patients – be they incarcerated or not.
“Finally, we call upon Gov. Jerry Brown and CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard to enter into good faith negotiations with the prisoner representatives, and to respond to their demands, in order to end this crisis before more lives are lost.” (Read the full letter and list of signatories below.)
Leading expert on prison health issues, Dr. Terry Kupers, signed on to the statement, adding: “The prisoners on hunger strike are making a courageous effort to speak up for their humanity and their rights. It is extraordinarily callous of the CDCR and Gov. Brown to ignore their plea for reasonable relief and then to fail even in providing them adequate medical care.”
“We urge CDCR to ensure that no prisoner on hunger strike be disciplined or threatened with the denial of medical care, that prisoners not be denied liquids, vitamins or any other form of sustenance they are willing to take, and that they receive appropriate medical care. We demand all medical professionals uphold their code of ethics and maintain the highest standards of care for all their patients – be they incarcerated or not.”
Ahnen reiterated the demands coming from many community members across the state: “The time has come for Gov. Brown to end this strike now by ordering negotiations between prisoners and CDCR officials to begin immediately. There is only one question I have for Gov. Brown: How many more prisoners will you allow to die before you begin negotiations?”
As the 2013 hunger strikers begin their fourth week without food, their supporters and families worry that more deaths may be imminent. Four prisoners involved in the 2011 hunger strikes lost their lives:
- Johnny Vick, 30, died in his cell at Pelican Bay State Prison on Sept. 16, 2011, between the first and second phases of the 2011 hunger strike. It was reported that proper procedures were not followed.
- Alex Machado died in his cell at Pelican Bay State Prison on Oct. 24, 2011. Neighboring prisoners reported that he was screaming for help before going silent.
- Hozel Blanchard, 41, died in his cell in Calipatria State Prison on Nov. 8 or 9, 2011. In his last weeks, he wrote to his family and to the courts about guard harassment and he sought an emergency transfer out of that prison. He also wrote that he had been on hunger strike and had been hospitalized for it.
- Christian Gomez, 27, died in his cell on Feb. 2, 2012, while on hunger strike at Corcoran State Prison. Corcoran prisoners had issued a set of demands to the warden in December 2011 and resumed a hunger strike in late January. Mr. Gomez had been on hunger strike for only a few days. His death may be attributable to an underlying medical condition possibly aggravated by a lack of treatment by the prison’s health care department.
The first three deaths are listed as suicides, a classification that neighboring prisoners and families often dispute. Attorney Carol Strickman, a member of the hunger strike mediation team, reports: “Regarding suicides in general, a report is written every year that analyzes each suicide, and recommendations are made to CDCR. The person who has been writing these reports resigned this year, stating that his recommendations are not followed.”
In addition to the medical professionals, religious leaders, too, have organized in support of the prisoners on hunger strike. Representatives of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture will on Tuesday, July 30, at 10 a.m., join with California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement in Sacramento to ask Gov. Brown and Secretary Beard to meet inmates’ demands and bring the hunger strike to a swift and humane end.
The group will deliver a letter to the governor, signed by more than 1,000 clergy and religious leaders from across the country, as well as petitions from partnering groups, which ask California officials to meet the core demands of prisoners in solitary confinement to resolve the hunger strike swiftly.
“California prisoners are engaged in a hunger strike, not because they want to commit suicide, but because they have no other way to protest the egregious conditions of prolonged solitary confinement,” said Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. “The experience of indefinite solitary confinement is so harmful that in California, thousands of prisoners continue to risk their lives to call us to attention.
“This is a matter of faith because God has endowed human beings with dignity and worth, which are violated by the experience of isolation. Consequently, more than 1,000 clergy and other religious leaders in California and across the country have come together in signing a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown asking him to honor the reasonable core demands of California prisoners in Security Housing Units – some of whom have now faced decades in indefinite solitary confinement.”
“Finally, we call upon Gov. Jerry Brown and CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard to enter into good faith negotiations with the prisoner representatives, and to respond to their demands, in order to end this crisis before more lives are lost.”
Healthcare Providers and Professionals Denounce Medical Neglect in the Current California Prisoner Hunger Strike
Statement endorsed by over 100 (listed below) as of July 27, 2013
For the third time in three years, thousands of prisoners in California are currently on hunger strike, protesting the widespread use of punitive long-term solitary confinement in the Security Housing Units (SHUs), in some cases for over 30 years continuously.
The current strike began on July 8, and over 1,000 prisoners have now gone over two weeks without food, supported by over 30,000 who abstained from eating for shorter periods. Two years ago when the 2011 California prison hunger strikes mobilized over 12,000 people at their peak, the state agreed to make significant improvements in prison conditions but has not carried through on most promised changes, particularly regarding use of long term and indefinite isolation.
As healthcare providers, we are issuing this statement to register our concern with reports that appropriate medical care is being denied the hunger striking prisoners. While there has been a concerted attempt by the authorities to censor the strikers to keep the strike out of the news, dozens of letters from affected strikers at a number of prisons have gotten out to supporters repeating similar details of medical neglect and abuse:
- Medications are being withheld in an attempt to coerce prisoners into abandoning their protest. According to attorney Marilyn McMahon, pain relief medication in particular is being withheld, “even if it’s medicine that should not be cut abruptly, but instead tapered off.” In one case a patient with heart failure has had his medications discontinued on the dubious assertion that he doesn’t need them because he’s on a hunger strike.
- Prison medical staff are required to monitor the health of prisoners on hunger strike, yet we hear that some institutions are violating this protocol, including not weighing the hunger strikers as required. There are also reports that nurses who are required to conduct daily checks are simply advising the prisoners to drink a lot of water. In other cases physicians have been dismissive of patient complaints, prisoners in need are being refused care and ignored, and in some cases even mocked by the very healthcare practitioners they are supposed to be able to depend upon for care.
- Some prisoners have told the prison authorities that they are refusing solid foods only, but CDCR refuses to provide them with liquid sustenance other than water, and guards have even confiscated any such liquids that they had in their cells.
- Many prisoners have indicated that they are not being provided with medical release form 7385, which they need to send to their loved ones, family members or to outside supporters so that these people on the outside can access their medical records.
- Several prisoners have been reclassified as “not on hunger strike” because they have been accused of having food in their cells. This means that they “have to start over” and go nine consecutive meals before being considered on hunger strike again, regardless of whether or not they have in fact broken their strike. Determining who is on hunger strike in such an arbitrary manner means that prisoners who may not have eaten for weeks will be dropped off the list for medical oversight.
Similar denial of appropriate medical monitoring and medications occurred during the 2011 prisoners’ hunger strikes and led concerned medical professionals to issue a statement condemning such coercive neglect as both unethical and illegal under California Penal Code Section 673. Furthermore, such acts of deliberate indifference to a patient’s serious medical needs constitute a violation of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment constitutional rights.
Today, we the undersigned find ourselves tragically having to echo the statement of two years ago, in registering our grave concern about these allegations, and in strongly urging Receiver J. Clark Kelso and the California Medical Board to investigate these claims. We urge CDCR to ensure that no prisoner on hunger strike be disciplined or threatened with the denial of medical care, that prisoners not be denied liquids, vitamins or any other form of sustenance they are willing to take, and that they receive appropriate medical care. We demand all medical professionals uphold their code of ethics and maintain the highest standards of care for all their patients – be they incarcerated or not.
Finally, we call upon Gov. Jerry Brown and CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard to enter into good faith negotiations with the prisoner representatives, and to respond to their demands, in order to end this crisis before lives are lost.
Please note that all organizational affiliations are being listed for identification purposes only.
- Henry Abrons MD; Berkeley
- Everett D. Allen MD; Crescent City
- Nada Ashkar; Diploma in Acupuncture, CSCMA member, CTCMPAO candidate; Toronto, Canada
- Lindsay Baukert BSN, RN; Nurse, Practitioner Student; University of Pennsylvania
- Michaela Beder MD; New York City
- Nazila Bettache MD CM; Montreal, Canada
- Iris Biblowitz RN; San Francisco, Calif.
- Lydia Ould Brahim MSc(a); Nursing Candidate, 2015, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
- Nathan P. Brimmer EMT-B, RN; Portland, Ore.
- Sweena Burroughs FNP; Berkeley, Calif.
- Nora Butler Burke; coordinator, ASTT(e)Q, Montréal, Quebec, Canada
- Leah Jo Carnine PA-S2; Phoenix, Ariz.
- Catherine Carter BSN, RN; Virginia
- Diane Chamberlin FNP
- Claudia Chaufan MD, PhD; Associate Professor of Sociology and Health Policy, University of California San Francisco
- Daisy Chen; Sanctuary Health Collective, Vancouver, B.C., Canada
- Mardge Cohen MD; Boston, Mass.
- Josh Connor; medical student
- Therese A. Coupez; LAc, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM), San Francisco, Calif.
- William C. Davis DO, MDiv
- Olivia deBree RN
- James Deutsch MD, PhD, FRCPC, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, Canada
- Mandeep Dhillon; Emergency Medicine Staff, Orizaba, Veracruz, Mexico
- Giselle Dias MA; Psychotherapist, London, Ontario, Canada
- Michael Duncan RPA-C; Medical Director, Vocal, N.Y.
- Mark Eisenberg MD; Massachusetts General Hospital, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
- Amie Fishman MPH; San Francisco
- Margaret Flowers MD; Congressional Fellow, Physicians for National Health Program
- Eric Fryxell MD; Southeast Community Health Center, Inc., Columbus, Ohio
- Anne-Marie Gallant, RN BSc, Health Justice Collective, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
- Miriam Garfinkle MD; Toronto, Canada
- Ritika Goel MD MPH; Toronto, Canada
- Warren Gold MD; Professor of Medicine Emeritus UCSF Medical School, San Francisco, Calif.
- David Goldberg MD; Director, Section of Preventive Medicine; Past Medical Staff President, John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County
- Elliot Goodenough; Fourth year medical student, Philadelphia, Penn.
- Eleanor Gottesman MD; Cleveland, Ohio
- Catherine P. Gros RN; Clinical Nurse Specialist, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
- Lana Habash MD; Boston Medical Center; Boston, Mass.
- Gregory Harper PhD, CCHT
- Sue Harris; co-director Peoples Video Network, New York City
- Khati Hendry MD
- Elizabeth Hillman BSN, CPM; Baltimore, Md.
- Wendy Hounsel RN, RH(AHG); Eugene, Ore.
- Helen Hudson RN, MSc(a); Montreal, Canada
- Farha Najah Hussain MSc(a); Speech-Language Pathologist, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
- David Ingleby PhD; Mental Health researcher, Professor at Centre for Social Science and Global Health, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Jonathan Irwin EMT-OR; Nursing Student
- Brian Jack MD; Chair, Department of Family Medicine; Boston Medical Center
- Lara Jirmanus MD
- Marcia Katz; Family Physician, Heartland Health Centers, Chicago, Ill.
- Zak Kirwood; Medical Assistant, Planned Parenthood of Southern New England
- Jim Kratzer MD
- Paige Kruza; Master of Public Health student, UC Berkeley School of Public Health
- Terry Kupers MD
- Peter Kusnierczyk FNP; San Francisco, Calif.
- Kate Lammers MFT Trainee
- Catherine Landry; physical rehabilitation therapist and osteopathy student, Montréal, Canada
- Bob Lederer; Host of “Health Action,” WBAI, Pacifica Radio, New York
- Vicki Legion; San Francisco, Calif.
- Carolyn Levine; retired, Director, Public Health Clinic Services, Muscatine, Iowa
- Judith Lienhard RN; Silverton Hospital, Portland, Ore.
- Abby Lippman; PhD, Professor Emerita, McGill University, Montréal, Québec
- Cadelba Lomeli-Loibl RN; Oakland, CA
- Kara MacLeod; DrPH Candidate, UC Berkeley School of Public Health
- Abeer Majeed; Primary Care Physician, Toronto
- Dana McCabe; Nurse practitioner, Boston, Mass.
- David McLanahan MD; Clinical Associate Professor of Surgery, University of Washington School of Medicine
- Howard Minkoff MD; Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Maimonides Medical Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.
- Hercules Morphopoulos DDS; Kensington, Calif.
- Baijayanta Mukhopadhyay MD; Timmins, Ontario, Canada
- Nick Paretsky Housekeeper; University Hospital, University of Missouri – Columbia
- Thea Patterson RN; Joseph M. Smith Community Health Center, Waltham, Mass.
- Robert M. Peck MD; FACC Associate Professor of Medicine, Keck/USC School of Medicine
- Melissa Pickles; Resident Psychiatrist, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
- Kara Pravdo BSN, RN; Philadelphia, Penn.
- Ryan E. Pryor CPM, RN, BSN; Philadelphia, Penn.
- Nanky Rai MPH; Toronto, Canada, medical student
- Sarah Reaburn RN; Inuvik NT, Canada
- Ash Robbins RN; Philadelphia, Penn.
- Susan Rosenthal, MD; International Health Workers for People Over Profit (IHWPOP); Toronto, Ontario, Canada
- Suzanne Ross PhD; Clinical Psychologist, New York
- Liz Samuels MD, MPH
- Marc Sapir MD, MPH; Ambulatory Care Division, Alameda Health Services
- Katherine Schaff; UC Berkeley Doctor of Public Health student with 10+ years of public health experience
- Carrie Schiff RN; San Francisco, Calif.
- Sophie Schoen RN; Montreal, Canada
- Sonia Semenic RN PhD; Montreal, Quebec, Canada
- Alan Shafer MA, MFT; San Francisco, CA
- Samir Shaheen-Hussain MD; Acute-Care Pediatrician and member of the Health Justice Collective, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
- Prateeksha Sharma; Executive director, Handsadhwani Foundation, Faridabad, India
- Heidi Lee Sinclair MD, MPH; New Orleans, La.
- Tolbert Small MD; Sojourner Truth Medical Clinic, Oakland, Calif.
- Shireen Soofi; Sanctuary Health, Coast Salish Territories
- Linda Spangler MD; Ambulatory Care Division Alameda Health Services
- Jean-Luc St-Amour; nursing student, Montreal, Quebec
- William Steinsmith MD; San Francisco, CA
- Nancy Stoller; PhD, Co-Founder, Jail and Prison Health Committee and Member, Governing Council, American Public Health Association
- Gregory Tewksbury; Chair, Ethical Action Committee, Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture
- Trent Tripp PT, MSPT; Phoenix, Ariz.
- William Wallin MD; Oakland, Calif.
- Li-hsia Wang MD; Berkeley, Calif.
- Dahlia Wasfi MD; Denver , Colo.
- Amina Watson MD
- Corey Weinstein MD
- Scott Weinstein RN; Montreal, Quebec, Canada
- Shawn Westfahl; Mutual Aid Street Medics, Philadelphia, Penn.
- Laura Whitehorn; former senior editor, POZ magazine
- Fred Wilkinson MD; Emergency Department (retired) Kaiser Permanente Group, Oakland, Calif.
- Kay Will RN; palliative care, hospice nurse
- Wilson Will PhD in Anthropology of Medicine, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.
- Donna Willmott MPH
- JM Wong RN; Seattle, Wash.
- Meghan Woods MDPGY-1; San Francisco General Hospital Family and Community Medicine
- Susan Woolhouse MD; MClSc, CCFP, South Riverdale Community Health Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
- Lorin Young; Resident Psychiatrist, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
- Tanya L. Zakrison; Assistant Professor of Surgery, Division of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care, Ryder Trauma Center, University of Miami
This statement has also been endorsed by Sanctuary Health Collective (Coast Salish Territories), the Melbourne Anarchist Black Cross and the National Jericho Movement.
Isaac Ontiveros of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization working to abolish the prison industrial complex, is a spokesperson for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition. He can be reached at (510) 444-0484 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Bay View staff contributed to this report.