Calif. state court rules prisoners can't be punished for hunger strike
In addition to overturning a 90-day sentencing increase for the inmate, the decision could help numerous hunger strikers
By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — A state appeals court says a California prisoner who took part in a mass hunger strike protesting long-term solitary confinement should not have been punished for disorderly behavior because he did not disrupt prison operations or endanger anyone.
Although the 2013 hunger strike, which involved as many as 30,000 inmates across the state, may have affected the workload of prison staff members, there was no evidence of “a breakdown of order” or any threat of violence, the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco said in the case of a former inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison.
The ruling, issued last month, was published Friday as a precedent for future cases. In addition to overturning a 90-day sentencing increase for the inmate, the decision could help numerous hunger strikers whose prison conduct is scrutinized by parole boards, said an attorney in the case, Carol Strickman of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.
For inmates serving life sentences with the possibility of parole, “the parole board is citing the hunger strike as a reason to keep them in prison, because of their ongoing criminal mentality,” Strickman said.
“We hope to use this opinion to try to educate the parole board,” she added. “You might say it makes you more suitable (for release), engaging in nonviolent protest. People could see it as good citizenship.”
The inmate, Jorge Gomez, was sent to Pelican Bay, in Del Norte County, in 2000 and was transferred three years later to the prison’s Security Housing Unit, where he was kept in solitary confinement for more than a decade. In July 2013, he refused to eat for four days and, after the third day, was cited for a “serious” violation of prison rules for taking part in a hunger strike.
Other inmates continued the hunger strike for as long as two months. Prison officials attributed the protest to gangs looking to expand their influence, but supporters of the inmates said the action helped to pressure the state into a legal settlement last August that put new limits on the use of solitary confinement and has already returned nearly 1,000 inmates to the general prison population.
In Gomez’s case, a prison hearing officer found that he had willfully disrupted prison operations by requiring officers to delay performing their normal duties and penalized him by taking away 90 days of good-conduct credits, effectively lengthening his sentence. Transferred later to another prison, he appealed unsuccessfully in the prison system and filed a lawsuit in 2014 that a judge summarily dismissed.
But the appeals court said prison officials failed to show that Gomez had engaged in disorderly or disruptive conduct, the regulation he was punished for violating. The court said it could clear him without having to decide whether inmates have a constitutional right, under freedom of speech, to engage in hunger strikes.
Gomez did not act violently or threaten violence, and none of the effects reported by prison officials — delays in some operations and services and reassignment of guards to monitor the hunger strikers — “suggests prison operations were thrown into disorder,” Justice Therese Stewart wrote in the 3-0 decision.
There was no immediate comment from prison officials, who could appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
L. Richard Braucher, a lawyer for Gomez, described the inmate’s conduct as “heroic.”
“These inmates were protesting their own mistreatment, peacefully, and then they were punished for it unlawfully,” Braucher said.
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