Colin Dayan has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times today on hunger-striking prisoners in California. Apparently, more than 1,700 prisoners are protesting conditions in isolation units that are used for “administrative segregation” of gang members and other troublemakers. Here is how Dayan describes the situation:
Officials at Pelican Bay, in Northern California, claim that those incarcerated in the Security Housing Unit are “the worst of the worst.” Yet often it is the most vulnerable, especially the mentally ill, not the most violent, who end up in indefinite isolation. Placement is haphazard and arbitrary; it focuses on those perceived as troublemakers or simply disliked by correctional officers and, most of all, alleged gang members. Often, the decisions are not based on evidence. And before the inmates are released from the barbarity of 22-hour-a-day isolation into normal prison conditions (themselves shameful) they are often expected to “debrief,” or spill the beans on other gang members.
The moral queasiness that we must feel about this method of extracting information from those in our clutches has all but disappeared these days, thanks to the national shame of “enhanced interrogation techniques” at Guantánamo. Those in isolation can get out by naming names, but if they do so they will likely be killed when returned to a normal facility. To “debrief” is to be targeted for death by gang members, so the prisoners are moved to “protective custody” — that is, another form of solitary confinement.
Prison officials are now considering force-feeding the strikers. Dayan suggests, though, that the more humane thing would be to let the prisoners starve themselves to death, if they so choose. There are complicated questions of bio-ethics here, and I’m not sure how you draw the line between a hunger strike and more mundane forms of suicide, which we should be extremely wary about permitting in prisons. As Dayan himself observes, mental illness may be common among those locked up in the isolation units. But, at the same time, I agree that inmate autonomy is entitled to some measure of respect as a matter of basic human rights. I wonder what the Eighth Amendment jurisprudence has to say about this problem, as well as the cases dealing more generally with the right to die. There may also be a First Amendment dimension to the problem, insofar as the hunger strike is intended to protest prison policies.