Voices from the Community

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On Hunger Strikes

By Joe Morgan, Harlem, NY

As his nation moved toward independence, Mahatma Gandhi beheld the disadvantage he had in confronting the British Empire. Britain had all the resources, the military, the wealth, and more importantly, the world standing, to preserve its’ colonial imprisonment of India. And so, Gandhi used a time-honored appeal to the best angels of human nature: the hunger strike. An appeal that challenges the very humanity of the oppressors by the oppressed, the hunger strike requires no weapons or great numbers. It requires only a powerful, righteous resolve to peacefully confront an adversary.

After lodging formal complaints to prison and government officials and receiving no relief, men housed in the SHU at Pelican Bay—one of the country’s most notorious supermax prisons, located in California— decided to follow in the footsteps of Gandhi, and undergo a peaceful protest hunger strike. The strike began on July 1, 2011, and spread like wildfire, receiving widespread support and media attention. At its peak, over 6,600 people incarcerated across the state of California participated. A second action took place a little over two months later and was joined by more than 12,000 incarcerated people.

Venal guards, mendacious politicians, prison profiteers, clueless and often corrupt prison administrations and an incarceration-mad public amount to an empire, on par with the colonial Britain Gandhi faced. Confronting a system as well financed and as politically connected as the prison industrial complex, with as few resources as the incarcerated population has, is a humbling proposition. But with the help of their communities, a vigilant press, a few principled organizations and politicians, the task is not insurmountable, and the hunger strike can prove to be a humane, powerful and persuasive tool.

Pelican Bay Hunger Strike illustration

“Censored pelican,” by Pete Collins. Collins is  incarcerated at Bath Prison, Ontario, Canada.


Ed. Note: At the time of publication, many of the issues that sparked the 2011 hunger strikes in California have not been resolved. Physical abuse, inhumane and unsanitary conditions of confinement, punitive visitation privileges, and improper use of SHU sentences still represent major concerns for incarcerated people across the United States. Hunger strikes continue to occur in prisons across the country, most recently taking place at California’s Corcoran and Tehachapi State Prisons in October of 2012.


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