Fasting for Rights and Dignity: From Guantanamo Bay to California

by Suzy Subways

From PHN Issue 18, Fall 2013

From Gandhi’s independence movement in India to women demanding the right to vote, from Cesar Chavez to Irish Republican Army political prisoners, oppressed people have used hunger strikes to show their deep commitment to freedom. This year, two major hunger strikes shook U.S. prisons.

At Guantanamo Bay, detainees went on hunger strike in February. March through July, their numbers grew to more than a hundred. The U.S. holds 166 people there, all of whom are Muslim men. Nearly all have been held without charge, most for at least 10 years. The government’s own records admit that 92% of the men ever held in Guantanamo were not “Al-Qaeda fighters.” About half of the detainees still held there have been cleared for release.

In California in July, 30,000 people in more than 20 prisons participated in the third hunger strike there in two years to demand an end to long-term solitary confinement. Representatives of all ethnic groups involved in the strike decided together to suspend it on September 5, after 60 days without food.

Fasting and the Body

Hunger strikers are at risk for death after about 42 days. After prolonged fasting, people can have lasting organ damage even after they start eating again.

California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) policy considers hunger strikers to be at high risk for health complications if they are pregnant, are 65 or older, have a body mass index lower than 18.5 kg/m2, take certain medications such as insulin or diuretics, or have chronic medical conditions. CCHCS policy requires that vitamins be provided after three weeks.

Those on hunger strike for more than 14 days or who have lost more than 10 pounds should talk to medical staff before eating again. The body can only take in small amounts of food at first. Those fasting more than 28 days are at high risk for a condition called refeeding syndrome that can cause death. Medical help when the hunger strike ends can prevent refeeding syndrome.

Medical Neglect and Force-Feeding

On July 22, hunger striker Billy “Guero” Sell died by apparent suicide at Corcoran State Prison, where he was held in solitary confinement. Witnesses reported that he had been requesting medical attention for about a week before his death but was ignored.

Other reports of medical neglect included painkillers and other medications being abruptly cut off; medical staff not weighing hunger strikers as required by CCHCS policy; minimal daily checkups; refusals to give medical care; and arbitrary reclassification of strikers as being no longer on hunger strike.

On August 19, a California judge issued an order authorizing force-feeding of hunger strikers, even when against their medical wishes as declared in an advance directive. Force-feeding can be very painful and invasive.

At Guantanamo, hunger strikers are routinely force-fed. United Nations officials released a statement May 1 calling for an end to indefinite detention there and noting that “Under [medical] principles, it is unjustifiable to engage in forced feeding of individuals contrary to their informed and voluntary refusal of such a measure.”

Medical neglect at Guantanamo has also been documented. An April 17 letter from a detainee to his lawyer stated, “Some detainees lose consciousness but they treat them inside their cells and don’t move them to the hospital.”

Impact of Hunger Strikes

By the end of September, 19 Guantanamo detainees were still on hunger strike. The starvation protest has drawn international attention back to the forgotten men detained indefinitely there and raised hopes that Guantanamo will be closed, as President Obama promised five years ago.

California hunger strikers also attracted international media. Family and supporters held creative demonstrations. The hunger strike is one tactic that Californians in solitary confinement have used to reach their goals. It has helped make possible other tactics, such as a class-action lawsuit and legislative hearings in the California state assembly. And the hunger strike is suspended, not ended, meaning it is a tactic that can be used again if necessary.

In the words of the strike representatives’ statement suspending the hunger strike: “The core group of prisoners has been, and remains 100% committed to seeing this protracted struggle for real reform through to a complete victory, even if it requires us to make the ultimate sacrifice. With that said, we clarify this point by stating prisoner deaths are not the objective.”

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