On Wednesday night, the New York Times reported that around 29,000 people have been refusing meals since Monday, but the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation now says only 12,000 people are officially on a hunger strike, having refused nine consecutive meals since Monday. (If a prisoner has had nothing to eat this week except lunch on Wednesday, the CDCR does not consider him or her to be on a hunger strike.)
"Participating in a mass disturbance and refusing to participate in a work assignment are violations of state law, and any participating inmates will receive disciplinary action," California prison officials said in a statement.
Joining in this current strike "can lead to loss of privileges, loss of credits," said Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He did not say what types of inmate privileges could be taken away.
That's strange, on a couple of levels—first, the strikers are in a prison system where conditions are reportedly so poor (medical facilities in old closets, ill people sitting in their own shit for days, liberal use of solitary confinement and other methods described as "torture" by UN officials) that some prisoners have stated that they are "willing to die" during this strike.
Secondly, the CDCR itself is the one in trouble, from lower courts all the way up to the Supremes, and is currently fighting a court order to improve conditions. It's had plenty of time—a case filed in 1990 was heard by the Supremes in 2010. From a Washington Post story that year:
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said one of the lawsuits challenging the lack of health care was filed in 1990. "How much longer do we have to wait?" she asked. "Another 20 years?"
Justice Stephen G. Breyer seemed shocked by photos from the crowded prisons, where bunk beds have taken over gymnasium floors and recreation areas, and medical facilities are located in former closets.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was Phillips's most aggressive questioner, replying skeptically, "Oh, counsel," to one of his points and telling him to "slow down from the rhetoric" and detail how the state intended to fix conditions the lower court found. "When are you going to avoid the needless deaths that were reported in this record?" Sotomayor asked.
But the CDCR hasn't made enough progress since 2010. The court order requires it to release 10,000 prisoners by the end of the year. (Confidential to CDCR: You could start by taking action to release the 8,600 prisoners who, as of your 2010 census, were in for simple drug possession charges. Throw in those "marijuana possession for sale" folks, and you'd be almost clear!)
So what Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for the CDCR, is basically saying: Prisoners who broadly agree with US court rulings and have decided to articulate their agreement by refusing to eat or labor for free (or, at best, for pennies per hour) are in biiiiiig trouble!
He's wagging his finger while others are putting their lives—and possibly time served—on the line to show their agreement with the US Supreme Court.
For a review of the prisoners' grievances, as explained by prison-rights activist Ed Mead, see here.