Suicide or Not, First Known Death in CA Hunger Strike Reflects Inhumane Prison Conditions

George Lavender August 1, 2013

A harrowing self-portrait of Billy Sell, who recently died under controversial circumstances. Sell was one of the many on hunger strike in the California state prison system.

Bil­ly Sell died last Mon­day inside Cor­co­ran State Prison, in California’s Cen­tral Val­ley. Sup­port­ers of pris­on­ers on hunger strike in Cal­i­for­nia have called for an inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion into his death in one of the state’s con­tro­ver­sial iso­la­tion units. Hun­dreds of pris­on­ers have now been refus­ing food for more than three weeks to demand an end to long-term soli­tary confinement.

This Mon­day, Sell’s death was pre­lim­i­nar­i­ly ruled a sui­cide from stran­gu­la­tion. A spokesper­son for the Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions and Reha­bil­i­ta­tion denied that the death was con­nect­ed to the ongo­ing hunger strike. Jef­frey Cal­li­son says it was not appro­pri­ate to spec­u­late” on the rea­sons Sell may have com­mit­ted sui­cide. Accord­ing to Cal­li­son, Sell had par­tic­i­pat­ed in the mass hunger strike, but had end­ed his strike the day before he died.

Ron Ahnen, a mem­ber of an eight-per­son medi­a­tion team that has been advo­cat­ing for the hunger strik­ers, says that oth­er pris­on­ers have told him that Sells was a strong indi­vid­ual” and they were very shocked to hear that he may have com­mit­ted sui­cide; that it was real­ly unchar­ac­ter­is­tic of him.” Fel­low pris­on­ers also said that Sell sought med­ical help for sev­er­al days before he died. Ahnen calls those reports wor­ri­some” because, after three weeks on hunger strike, the health sit­u­a­tion of many of the pris­on­ers is going to be very delicate.”

A spokesper­son for Cal­i­for­nia Cor­rec­tion­al Health Care Ser­vices denies that accu­sa­tion. Reports that he had not been pro­vid­ed with med­ical care are untrue,” says Leg­isla­tive Direc­tor Joyce Hayhoe.

Cal­li­son says his depart­ment takes sui­cides very seri­ous­ly” and that any sui­cide is one too many,” but that there was no phys­i­cal evi­dence con­nect­ing [Sel­l­’s] deci­sion to take his life with his pre­vi­ous par­tic­i­pa­tion in the hunger strike.” There were 32 sui­cides in Cal­i­for­nia pris­ons last year, dou­ble the nation­al state prison sui­cide rate. Nation­wide, around 50 per­cent of all sui­cides in prison take place in soli­tary confinement.

My view is that, whether he com­mit­ted sui­cide or not, there’s a con­nec­tion,” says Ahnen. If he com­mit­ted sui­cide, it demon­strates the lev­el of despair that those con­di­tions cre­ate. He was in soli­tary con­fine­ment for at least five years, he’s already despair­ing, he goes on a hunger strike to find some reprieve and gets no answer, he then asks for med­ical help and gets no answer; all this cre­ates despair.”

A pen­cil draw­ing Sell made before he died shows a stark con­crete prison cell. Accord­ing to pris­on­ers who knew him, he had spent at least five years in soli­tary con­fine­ment in such a cell. Nan­cy Stoller, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San­ta Cruz, who has spent 35 years research­ing health in pris­ons, says that the effect of long-term soli­tary con­fine­ment is to leave peo­ple emo­tion­al­ly, psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, and social­ly harmed in a long-term way.”

We are being psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly tor­ment­ed,” writes Mutope Dugu­ma, a hunger-strik­ing pris­on­er in long-term soli­tary con­fine­ment. Every aspect of our life with­in the prison is under attack: our mail, food, yard, can­teen, pack­ages, fam­i­lies, law library. Every­thing that makes life worth liv­ing, prison has tak­en away from you.” Dugu­ma says this is done to cre­ate hope­less­ness” so that you get to a point that you can­not take it no more.” He says that is why he decid­ed to take part in the hunger strike, but oth­ers have been tor­tured into insanity/​suicide.”

Accord­ing to Stoller, while despair has led some to take part in the hunger strikes and oth­ers to sui­cide, they’re all respond­ing to the high­ly dam­ag­ing effects of being in soli­tary.” Depriv­ing some­one of their abil­i­ty to inter­act, ver­bal­ly, visu­al­ly, phys­i­cal­ly with oth­er human beings is a way of attack­ing our core of being human,” she says. 

Cor­rec­tions offi­cials said that on Mon­day, 561 inmates in nine Cal­i­for­nia pris­ons were still refus­ing food — 385 of them since the start of the hunger strike more than three weeks ago. Those fig­ures may be high­er, says Ron Ahnen, who accus­es prison offi­cials of play­ing with the num­bers” by, for instance, remov­ing pris­on­ers from the list of hunger strik­ers if they take a drink from their meal trays.

Mem­bers of the medi­a­tion team, includ­ing Ahnen, met with high lev­el cor­rec­tions offi­cials last week for what the depart­ment says was an infor­ma­tion­al meet­ing.” Jef­frey Cal­li­son insists that the depart­ment will not nego­ti­ate with the pris­on­ers or their sup­port­ers and that in the end, it’s up to the inmates to decide to end the hunger strike.” But many pris­on­ers say they are com­mit­ted to con­tin­u­ing the hunger strike. After 13 years in iso­la­tion, Dugu­ma says that he and the oth­er hunger strik­ers are doing what we have to in order to get the peo­ple of this nation to say we have suf­fered enough and no one should be tor­tured and stripped of their humanity.”

George Laven­der is an award-win­ning radio and print jour­nal­ist based in Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @GeorgeLavender.
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