home Middle East, North America, Politics A Tale of Three Hunger Strikes

A Tale of Three Hunger Strikes

This week, the hunger strike at Guantànamo Bay Prison reached the six-month mark.

Six months ago, during a routine prison inspection, a prison guard kicked and ruthlessly mishandled a Muslim inmate’s Qu’ran, after a William K. Lietzau, the Pentagon’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Rule of Law and Detainee Policy alleged that several Muslim inmates were hoarding contraband—and quite possibly makeshift weapons—inside of their Qu’rans. Although several journalists and human rights groups demanded photographic evidence of these weapons, the guards were unable to produce anything significant.

In protest, 106 Guantànamo detainees began a hunger strike. In addition to protesting the disrespectful mishandling of several inmates’ holy Qu’rans, they also declared the larger overarching issues of Guantànamo—that 86 out of 166 detainees have been cleared for release, yet are still in captivity and nearly all of the detainees have been held without trail—as central to their strike.

In 2005, a similar incident—the defacement of Qu’rans—prompted a hunger strike that lasted four months before gradually trickling down. Still, as of April 2008 there were still ten hunger strikers, proving that this is a constant, rather than unique phenomenon.

In July, military doctors began force-feeding Guantànamo’s remaining hungerstrikers with feeding tubes shoved up their nose, down their esophagus and into their stomachs. Despite the objection from both human rights communities and the medical community—not to mention the concurrence of the hunger strike with the holy month of Ramadan that necessitates fasting—this practice has continued unabated.

Also in July, 30,000 inmates from across the state of California began the largest hunger strike in the state’s history—prompted by a group of prisoners in the state’s infamous Pelican Bay Prison. Although all of the prisoners had been tried—and convicted—in a fair trial, their strike was in response to the popular state prison policy of indefinite solitary confinement. Some of Pelican Bay’s inmates have been held in isolated solitary confinement for as long as 20 or 30 years—when medical research shows that as short a time as a few days in solitary can create lifetime mental health issues.

According to state policy, any prisoner who could possibly be linked to prison gangs is automatically placed in solitary confinement—no questions asked. One of the primary demands of the Pelican Bay Prison hunger strikers—among simple requests such as one photograph a year and one phone call per week—is to modify gang status criteria. In addition to this, prisoners are requesting an end to group punishment and administrative abuse, compliance with established recommendations for restrictions on solitary confinement, a more nutritious diet and an expansion of privileges and programming for inmates held in solitary confinement.

Although the number of inmates on hunger strike had significantly declined, several inmates are still refusing meals making this both the largest and the longest hunger strike in the states history—the strike is now in its fourth week. On July 22, Billy “Guero “ Sell was the first Pelican Bay Prison hunger striker to die. Although he died from medical neglect due to his hunger strike, his death is being recorded as a suicide.

On the other side of the world, as a backdrop to both of these hunger strikes are the on-going hunger strikes of Palestinian prisoners indefinitely detained in Israeli jails. Like the prisoners at Guantànamo, many Palestinian prisoners are indefinitely detained in a policy known as “administrative detention,” where a prisoner can be detained without trial for a certain period of time, and then have these detentions renewed—making the detention indefinite.

For Palestinians—where 20 percent of the population is in prison, 40 percent of the male population is in prison and almost everyone has a close friend or family member who has been affected by the prison system—this policy affects almost everyone. In addition to administrative detention, most prisoners are interrogated and tortured for days on end and incarcerated in Israeli jails where their families are unable to visit them.

Last year, Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan—who was accused of being involved with radical jihadist movements, but never tried—refused meals for 66 days until he was promised that he would be released. Since Adnan’s strike, several other prominent Palestinian political prisoners have engaged in hunger strikes, with varying success rates. Regardless, it began a tradition of en masse hunger strikes amongst Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails that began to draw the line between the desire for freedom and the desire for death.

Each of these hunger strikes is rooted in US prison policy, foreign policy and national security. In California, Governor Jerry Brown’s reluctance to deal with the prison issue is at the crux of the problem. At Guantànamo, President Barack Obama campaigned on a platform that promised to close it as soon as he assumed office and, while he put an end to many of the gruesome torture policies that took place during the Bush administration, he still failed to close the prison or release the detainees who have been cleared for release. In Israel, the US’s generous foreign aid package of $3.1 billion per year ensures that these prisons can operate and function effectively, maintaining their harsh policies. Once the most recent Guantànamo Bay Prison hunger strike was well underway, an Israeli official even contacted the United States government with advice on “how best to deal with hunger strikers.”

Still, despite the refusal to budge on any of these unjust policies, several prisoners still remain on strike—despite critical medical condition and the ever-present risk of an invisible death. As Palestinian hunger striker Khader Adnan said, “I starve myself for you to remain. I die for you to live. Stay with the revolution.”