Did California Inmate Die From Hunger Strike or Suicide?
Today is Day 22 of the largest mass hunger strike in California state prison history, called in protest of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's notorious solitary confinement practices. While 32,000 prisoners were refusing meals when the strike began on July 8, fewer than 600 of the state's 120,000 prisoners were still striking over the weekend.
One prisoner currently not on hunger strike is 32-year old Billy Sell, who was found dead in his cell at Corcoran State prison in Kings County, halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield, on July 22.
Sell died of an apparent suicide and was not on hunger strike when he died, according to prison officials. But Sell's friends on the inside indicate say that Sell was striking -- and sought medical attention which he did not receive before dying, according to advocates for the hunger strikers.
There's increased international attention on the method of prisoner protest via refusing meals, thanks largely to the ongoing strike among inmates in Guantanamo Bay. Those detainees, some of whom will have been held for 12 years without charges or trials later this year -- and 86 of whom have been cleared for release -- are being "force fed" in a method publicized by Yasiin Bey, better known as Mos Def (or, possibly, not, it was reported over the weekend).
In California state prisons, hunger strikes are nothing new. They happen with such frequency that strike statistics are duly recorded -- along with the most weight lost or gained by prisoners -- on prison's annual reports. But this year, it's a little different. Strikers at over two-thirds of the state's prisons refused meals, in solidarity with the prisoners at Pelican Bay's supermax.
Like the inmates in Cuba, California prisoners can also be locked up indefinitely. Currently, prisoners deemed the worst of the worst can be put in 23-hour isolation in the CDCR's Special Housing Units (SHU). This punishment is usually reserved for prisoners with gang affiliations or inmates who committed crimes while already in maximum security -- and it can continue for decades; some prisoners have been in near-total isolation, in windowless rooms, for decades.
Sell, who was serving a lifetime sentence for attempted murder -- and was in SHU housing for allegedly killing another inmate in 2007 -- died on July 22, according to a press release issued Saturday by the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.
The Associated Press and other outlets reported over the weekend that Sell died of an apparent suicide by hanging; a CDCR spokesperson contacted by SF Weekly Sunday could not confirm how Sell died except to say that he was found "unresponsive" in his cell and declared dead at 9:32 p.m.
There were 564 prisoners across the state still on hunger strike -- which is defined as refusing at least nine meals in a row -- as of Sunday, according to the CDCR.
The strikers are demanding an end to indefinite detention and limits of up to five years of 23-hour isolation. As it happens, participating in a hunger strike is also illegal, and can land hungry inmates in deeper trouble.
There's not yet a provision in place to force-feed state prison hunger-strikers, who are seeking action from Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown, who is on a two-week vacation in Europe, has yet to comment publicly on the strike.