Last night, Supervisor John Avalos had an idea. He was looking for ways to support the ongoing hunger strike in California's prisons. Why not, he figured, stage one of his own? So today, as part of a statewide day of action for prison reform supporters, Avalos didn't have a bite to eat.
"I want the hunger strikers to know that they are not alone and that there are elected officials who are concerned about their conditions," Avalos told me this afternoon. "I'd like to see the abolition of solitary confinement for longer than fifteen days, and better chances for education and nutrition. It's about human dignity. When we incarcerate someone, we take away their liberty, but we shouldn't take away their humanity."
According to their supporters, the prisoners on hunger strike are demanding an end to group punishment, modifications to how prisons classify inmates as members of gangs, an end to long-term solitary confinement, improved nutrition, and an expansion of humanitarian programs. The hunger strike, which started in early July with 30,000 inmates, is now down to 1,000. On July 22nd, one striker was found hanged to death in his cell, after refusing food since at least July 11th. Yesterday, a group of activists and celebrities, including Jay Leno, released a letter in support of the prisoners.
For Avalos, the 24-hour fast is an expression of longstanding political beliefs. He's currently working on city legislation that would prevent immigrants in the justice system from being held longer than their sentence so as to be turned over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. "I have relatives in the prison system," Avalos says, "and my family has been impacted by violence. But people need a humane place to live, even behind bars." Avalos is also a critic of mandatory sentencing programs like the state's Three Strikes law, and of disparities in drug offense sentencing.
The lawmaker also believes that more humane conditions in prisons should have the support of crime victims. "You want the person who is locked up to come to terms with what they’ve done. To apologize and seek restoration. I think that is what victims expect from the justice system—to find solace and comfort. Our [incarceration] system should provide that."
As for the supervisor, he plans to break his fast tomorrow morning. But for today, he's had nothing but mint tea. No caffeine, even? "Well, I did have an English Breakfast tea," he said with a laugh. "That's caffeinated."