[Pnews] State court rules prisoners can’t be punished for hunger strike

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Apr 25 10:11:05 EDT 2016


  State court rules prisoners can’t be punished for hunger strike

By Bob Egelko

          April 23, 2016

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 
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.


Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle 
staff writer. Email: begelko at sfchronicle.com 
<mailto:begelko at sfchronicle.com> Twitter: @egelko

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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