Update (February 13): Theresa Cisneros, Public Information Officer at Corcoran, confirmed to Solitary Watch that Christian Gomez, 27, was hunger striking at the time of his death in the Administrative Segregation Unit. Official autopsy results still pending. Nancy Kincaid of California Correctional Health Care Services told Solitary Watch that Gomez had been “medically monitored for hunger strike activity and had been on strike for four days” at the time of his death on February 2nd. She further said that “the preliminary autopsy report does not indicate hunger strike activity contributed to his death.”
News of a death in Corcoran State Prison’s Administrative Segregation Unit is emerging as an underreported hunger strike in the prison’s ASU comes to a close. Inmates in the ASU are held in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement. Many have been in isolation for years and even decades.
California State Prison, Corcoran, which houses over 1400 in Security Housing Units and an additional 350 in ASUs, has been the site of two waves of hunger strikes since late December 2011. Unlike the highly publicized hunger strikes last year that originated in Pelican Bay State Prison’s SHU, the Corcoran strikes have remained relatively small and have received little press attention.
On December 19, 2011, three inmates at Corcoran announced a hunger strike protesting the conditions of the ASU. They listed eleven demands ranging from educational and rehabilitative programming to timely medical care. According to California Department of Corrections spokesperson Terry Thornton:
On Dec. 28, 59 inmates housed in the Administrative Segregation Unit at Corcoran State Prison refused their state-issued meals. On Dec. 29, that number dropped to 54. On Dec. 30, 49 inmates refused state-issued meals. By Dec. 31, all inmates resumed eating state-issued food.
According to Pyung Hwa Ryoo, one of the main petitioners of the December 2011 hunger strike:
Three days after the strike began, prison officials came to the ASU and let the strikers know that the petition, and demands of the strike, would be granted. They requested three weeks to make the changes happen; and to give them the benefit of the doubt, the request was granted and the strike was put on hold.
It has been a little more than 2 weeks since the strike stopped. So far, there has been some improvements in this ASU, but the majority of the promised changes have not yet occurred.
According to a letter from strike petitioner Juan Jaimes dated January 31st:
…this hunger strike commenced on December 28, 2011 and it has no ending date unless some or all demands are met…
He also indicated (as confirmed by CDCR’s inmate locator) that he was transferred from Corcoran to Kern Valley State Prison. Though unconfirmed, he has also indicated that the two other strike petitioners were also transferred away from each other.
There is conflicting information suggesting that some inmates continued to strike during the period between the “official” strikes. The following, however, has been confirmed by Thornton:
On Jan. 27, 32 inmates in Corcoran State Prison’s Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) refused to eat breakfast and started a hunger strike. As of Feb. 9, all inmates in the ASU except one resumed eating state-issued food.
In an email to Solitary Watch from Nancy Kincaid, Director of Communications for California Correctional Health Care Services, stated that all strikers resumed eating February 9th.
A letter to California activist Kendra Castaneda from a Corcoran ASU striker, however, indicated that “on or about Feb 2nd or 3rd 2012 an inmate has passed away due to not eating.”
While the cause of death and its possible relationship to the hunger strike remains unconfirmed, Thornton responded to questions from Solitary Watch with an apparent affirmation that an inmate death had taken place, and the statement: “I do not know the results of the autopsy.”
In response to a phone call, Tom Edmonds, Chief Deputy Coroner in Kings County confirmed that inmate Christian Gomez died on February 2nd at Corcoran, but also did not share the cause of death.
Solitary Watch will provide updates as information becomes available.