For five days, 29,000 inmates in California's state prisons have refused all meals in the largest hunger strike and prison protest in state history. It is the third hunger strike in two years protesting the state's inhumane practice of prolonged solitary confinement, and it looks to be a long strike. Two years ago, inmates ended their strike after officials promised reform. This time, inmates say they will refuse to accept anything less than a legally binding agreement. These inmates, who are risking their health and their lives, are on my mind.
Here is what I want to tell them:
Your actions speak loudly. We can hear you. We know things must change.
We know that more than 4,500 of you live trapped in gray concrete boxes, with no windows, no fresh air, no sunlight.
We know you pass the months and years in a space 11 by 7 feet .
We know that the only place you visit outside of your cell - for just one hour each day - is called the "dog run." It is the length of two small cars. You go there alone.
We know that you get your food through slats in steel or iron doors, and officers give you paper cups filled with soap and toothpaste once a month.
We know that guards wake you every 30 minutes, including throughout the night.
We know that beyond these rude encounters, you have scarcely any human contact.
We know that, as of 2011, 500 of you have been locked inside these boxes of gray for more than 10 years, two hundred for more than 15 years, and 78 for more than 20 years. One of you was locked inside for 42 years.
We can't know what that is like. We can't even imagine the toll that such numbing boredom and crushing loneliness take on the mind, the body, and spirit.
We know some of you call it "living death." We know it is torture.
We know it is inhumane -- that depriving a person of human contact is a simple and effective way to destroy them, and that many of you will try to destroy yourselves to end the pain. We know that those of you in isolation account for half of the prisons' suicides -- even though you make up just 5 percent of the total population.
We stand with you. We are with you. Your hopes for human dignity are our hopes.
So, shamed by your treatment, inspired by your courage, and bound by our common humanity, we call on lawmakers to permit solitary only in extraordinary cases and only as a last resort. We call on them to keep those of you suffering from mental illness and developmental disabilities out of these cages. We call on them to check your mental health, and pull you from your cold, isolated cell if you show signs of illness. We call on them to stop throwing so many of you into these boxes.
One day, we will see solitary for what it is: cruelty. One day, we will be more humane. And you are helping us get there.
Hector Villagra is Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California; Cross-posted from Huffington Post