Month-Long Hunger Strike at Corcoran Prison Ends as COVID Outbreak Continues

Month-Long Hunger Strike at Corcoran Prison Ends as COVID Outbreak Continues

By Ryan Fatica

Three prisoners at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (CSATF) in Corcoran, California ended their hunger strike this week after more than a month of refusing food in protest of conditions. Despite ending the hunger strike, the prisoners say they are continuing in their “work strike”–a refusal to perform prison jobs. 

In a statement from the strikers released by the prisoner support group Oakland Abolition and Solidarity, a spokesperson for the strikers wrote, “though the leaders have suspended the Starvation Act of the strike, our Workers strike remains alive.” 

Lt. Brent Urban, Public Information Officer at CSATF, confirmed that 3 prisoners staged a month-long hunger strike at the prison that ended this week. 

Although the hunger strike has been called off, the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility continues to spread. The facility now reports 859 active cases of the virus. The facility has also reported 3 deaths from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. An average of more than a hundred prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 at the facility each week for the last three weeks, according to statistics maintained by the California Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. 

The outbreak at the Corcoran facility is part of a larger trend of rising rates of COVID-19 throughout California’s prisons. There are currently 5,098 active cases of the virus in California’s prisons, a number that far surpasses the surge in cases this summer. Ninety California prisoners have died of the virus, despite months of warnings from public health officials that the virus thrives in crowded settings and urgent calls from advocates to reduce the prison population to prevent such deaths. 

In response to the outbreaks taking place throughout the prison system, the CDRC has instituted a “mandatory 14-day statewide modified program,” which limits prisoner movement and access to essential services like phones and showers. Prisoners are limited to one phone call per week and one shower every 3 days. CSATF has also instituted weekly testing of all prisoners as well as contact tracing and quarantine measures. 

Despite an effort earlier this year to reduce California’s prison population, it does not appear that the state has responded to the current outbreak by releasing a significant number of prisoners. Although social justice groups, humanitarian organizations and even prosecutors have called for a drastic reduction in the prison population, state governments across the country continue to respond to the virus by removing prisoners’ access to basic necessities (such as contact with loved ones, movement and showers) rather than by releasing them. 

The California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility is the state’s single largest prison, housing 4,439 prisoners, almost 130% of its intended capacity.

In October, a California appellate court ordered San Quentin state prison to cut its prison population by half in order to address the facility’s COVID-19 outbreak. So far, 28 people have died at San Quentin after catching the virus. 

“I have lost all hope in humanity because of how California and CDCR [California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation] has Failed to Protect individuals like myself,” said David S. Cauthen, Jr., 32, a prisoner at CSATF who participated in the hunger strike.

A hunger striker poses for a prison photo
David S. Cauthen, Jr., 32, a prisoner at CSATF who ended a month-long hunger strike this week, poses for a prison photo (Photo Source: Linda Osbey).

Linda Osby, Cauthen’s mother, just wants her son to come home safe. As COVID-19 spreads through the prison system, the outbreak continues to baffle her. “It’s surreal,” Osby said. 

Like many prisoners and their families, Osby believes that guards’ unwillingness to consistently wear masks and respect social distancing is contributing to the outbreak. “It’s just like, [prisoners] can’t go out and buy masks and secure themselves. And the guards, the people that work there, they’re the ones who are bringing it in. I mean the prisoners don’t leave.” 

“These guys don’t deserve to die because of someone else’s ignorance,” said Osby. “It’s selfish of others not to consider other people’s lives.”

Lt. Urban said that the prison is taking measures to ensure that staff members are not transmitting the virus to prisoners or the community outside the prison walls. “Staff members who work in quarantine and isolation units are required to wear N95 respirators while performing their duties and additional personal protective equipment (PPE), if required, based on public health guidance. Additionally, all staff are screened verbally and by temperature check whenever entering institution grounds.” 

Although they have ended the hunger strike, the prisoners pledge to continue their protest. “We will take substance and repair our health for the next phase,” the strikers wrote in their statement. “Though starvation has been suspended, We remain on Work strike. And this involves non-cooperating with CDCR [California Department of Rehabilitation and Correction]. 1.WE aren’t accepting cell-mates other than those we have, 2. WE will not act to interfere with harm, or prevent the act of harm being done to any officer or staff member of SATF/CDCR, 3. WE will function in our divine principality, come it what thy wilt.”

Correction: A previous version of this story attributed data on COVID-19 in the California state prison system to the Los Angeles Times. The data was curated by the curated by the Los Angeles Times, but is maintained and distributed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via their online tracking tool.

(Header photo credit: Anthony Polumbo)