A prisoner held in solitary confinement in a California state prison died on Monday. Prison officials say Billy “Guero” Sell was not participating in the hunger strike and called his death a suicide. However, his fellow inmates said he was participating in the strike and his death could have been prevented if the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR) would have negotiated with strikers.
Thousands of inmates in California state prisons are participating in a hunger strike in protest of solitary confinement, which they say amounts to torture. Some inmates are subjected to long-term solitary confinement that can last for decades.
Advocates and inmates say Sell was taking part in the hunger strike and requested medical attention several days before his death, according to ThinkProgress. Sell was an inmate at Corcoran State Prison Security Housing Unit (SHU) in Corcoran, Calif.
The CDCR said Sell’s death is being investigated as a suicide, unrelated to the strike, but other inmates claim suicide would have been “completely out of character for him.”
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A letter from several hunger strikers said, “No one believes he killed himself.”
They said Sell was “strong, a good person."
“This story is deeply troubling and contradicts the assurances that the hunger-striking prisoners are receiving about appropriate medical care,” said Ron Ahnen of California Prison Focus and the mediation team representing striking prisoners.
Terry Downton of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture said long-term solitary causes psychological harm to prisoners and increases violence in prison.
At maximum-security prison Pelican Bay in upstate California there are inmates who have been in solitary confinement for 10 to 28 years.
“After 15 days in isolation the chemistry of the brain begins to change … leading to increasing rates of hallucinations, paranoia and self-mutilation," Downton told The Guardian. "It has become a default management tool rather than a tool of last resort.”
On July 8, there were 30,000 inmates participating in the hunger strike. The protest was the largest of its kind in California history. But today those numbers are just about 1,000 prisoners in 11 state prisons.
Relatives and advocates say that guards blast cold air into a striker’s cell to weaken their resolve.