San Quentin Prisoners Go on Hunger Strike As COVID-19 Cases Surge

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A group of prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19 in California’s San Quentin State Prison has declared a hunger strike over what they described as “dismal” living conditions, per HuffPost. The prison currently has 1,113 active cases of the coronavirus amongst inmates, about one-third of all those incarcerated, as well as 102 staff. At least one person has died due to complications from the virus.

The hunger strike is taking place in a part of the prison referred to as the Badger section, where some inmates who have tested positive are being held. Those in the section say they are required to remain in their cells all day with little access to showers, fresh air, and electrical power. The medical care inmates were receiving was criticized as inadequate, and prisoners considered asymptomatic have been forced to double up in cells.

“[T]he cells are filthy and we are not being given cleaner to maintain them. Some of us are being housed together when the whole thing is to keep us six feet away from each other,” said one inmate.

James King, a state campaigner at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and former prisoner in San Quentin, explained the reasoning of those on the strike to NBC Bay Area.

“What’s happening at San Quentin is the largest human rights tragedy in this state during the Covid era. People at San Quentin are now putting their bodies on the line in the hopes of raising awareness. If they are successful, it will save lives not just of incarcerated people, but also the larger community.”

An exterior view of San Quentin State Prison.
Featured image credit: Justin SullivanGetty Images

Sources say that 20 prisoners have committed to taking part in the hunger strike. However, prison officials have said that only seven have so far refused meals, beginning with dinner on Tuesday. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation does not officially recognize a hunger strike until a prisoner refuses nine consecutive meals. As San Quentin operates on the standard breakfast-lunch-dinner eating cycle, the strike will not be recognized until lunch on Friday is turned down.

A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not directly address the hunger strike, but said that the agency understands and shares the concerns of those incarcerated. They added that it was “implementing strategies to control the spread of the virus to protect all those who live and work in our state prison.”

Among the strategies that the agency plans to address include suspending intakes from jails and non-essential transfers, ramping up testing, and mandating masks throughout the prison. There are also plans to establish a unified command center in San Quentin that would improve coordination in responding to COVID-19.