The above image is a self-portrait of Billy “Guero” Sell, hunger striker who died at Corcoran state prison on July 22, 2013. CDCR attempted to cover this up, not even informing prisoner advocates it met with in the following days that a death had occurred. When outside supporters were informed days later by other prisoners, CDCR reluctantly confirmed the news, but insisted that Sell had not been on hunger strike, but had “merely” committed suicide by hanging. (Which in itself would say plenty about the conditions he was being held in!)
Perhaps not so coincidentally, in the intervening days, the press reported that “independent monitors” from the state Inspector General were being sent into prisons to review how hunger strikers were being treated. The initial results of this “independent monitoring” seem unpromising, but as preemptive damage control it all makes a certain kind of sense.
While the precise details are not yet known, CDCR has since been forced to admit that Sell was in fact on hunger strike, and had been registered as such until just a day before he died. (Keep in mind that if a prisoner accepts any liquid other than water, such as the Kool-Aid issued with meals, that prisoner in counted as ending his hunger strike. If a prisoner is seen “fishing” – passing anything from cell-to-cell – that prisoner is similarly considered off hunger strike. This and other counting tricks keeps the number of hunger strikers low.)
Carol Strickman, an attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, has provided this list of other prisoners who, over the past two years, have similarly died and had their deaths ruled suicides, in the context of the ongoing hunger strikes against solitary:
Johnny Vick apparently hung himself on Friday, September 16, 2011, in his cell at Pelican Bay State Prison. This was during the period between the first and second phases of the 2011 hunger strike (July 1 – 20, then September 26 – October 13). He was 30 years old. We understand from Mr. Vick’s family that he had mental health issues. We are not certain that he was in the SHU or Ad-Seg at the time of his death, but had at one point been in the SHU. He may have been on suicide watch at the time of his death. It was reported that proper procedures were not followed.
Alex Machado hung himself on October 24, 2011, in his Ad-Seg cell at Pelican Bay State Prison. He had been placed in Ad-Seg at Kern Valley State Prison in December 2007. He was later transferred to Pelican Bay SHU in February 2010. In June, 2011, he was removed from the SHU and transferred to Ad-Seg at Pelican Bay due to his mental health needs. We do not know if he participated in the hunger strikes. Alex was known and liked for his assistance to other prisoners in their legal matters.
Neighboring prisoners reported that he was screaming for help before going silent. A longer report is available on Solitary Watch.
Hozel Blanchard killed himself on November 8 or 9, 2011 in his Ad-Seg cell in Calipatria State Prison. He was 41. In his last weeks, he wrote to his family and to the courts about guard harassment and he sought an emergency transfer out of that prison. He also wrote that he had been on hunger strike and had been hospitalized for it.
Christian Gomez died on February 2, 2012, while on hunger strike at
Corcoran State Prison. He was 27 years old. Corcoran prisoners had issued a set of demands to the warden in December 2011, and resumed a hunger strike in late January. Mr. Gomez had only been on hunger strike for a few days. His death may be attributable to an underlying medical condition possibly aggravated by a lack of treatment by the prison’s health care department.
As Strickman notes, “Regarding suicides in general, a report is written every year that analyzes each suicide, and recommendations are made to CDCR. The person who has written these reports resigned this year, stating that his recommendations are not followed.”
Commenting on these “suicides”, Chad Landrum (another hunger striker) wrote,
“How do we know that these men intended suicide? We don’t. But of greater significance, we do know that there were repeated attempts to call “Man Down”, kicking on cell doors, etc., which was willfully ignored and neglected by guards. In parallel circumstances, were not state employees involved, anyone else would be charged with either murder or at the very least manslaughter.”
Indeed, regardless of the precise manner in which Sell and the other suicided prisoners died, their deaths can be rightly seen as cases of murder. Just some of the many murders that have resulted from isolation torture, the cruelty of captivity and confinement, and the vicious refusal of prisoncrats and government leaders to negotiate in good faith and meet the prisoners’ just demands. Such systemic murder is the logical conclusion of a system designed to destroy people, the physical corollary to what is primarily intended to occur in their minds and spirits.
We must think hard on how to break the impasse and force an end to the ongoing confinement and torture of tens of thousands.
More lives depend on it.