Last summer, four prison inmates organized a hunger strike from their solitary-confinement cells and inspired 30,000 prisoners to join them—a stunning development that says a lot about US prisons, writes Benjamin Wallace-Wells in New York. The four guys—allegedly leaders of white, black, and Latino gangs—were eventually force-fed at Pelican Bay State Prison in California but kept on striking. After about two months, down to 65 fellow strikers, they called it quits when state lawmakers offered to hold hearings about conditions in the prison's solitary cells. "That is a victory," said one of the leaders. Indeed, the hearings suggest that reform is in the air, and four other states have stopped allowing prison isolation. But how did an incarceration method that some liken to torture become so widespread?
Wallace-Wells looks back to the 1980s and '90s, when crime escalated and California prison gangs rose to prominence along racial lines: Black Guerrilla Family for blacks, Aryan Brotherhood for whites, and Nuestra Familia and the Mexican Mafia for latinos. Authorities reacted by approving the Secure Housing Unit at Pelican Bay, where 1,100 prisoners are held in nearly as many cells to isolate gang members from one another. But while street crime plummeted, the prisoners still found ways to communicate—like shouting through toilet drains and leaving messages in library books—and reports emerged of prisoners experiencing psychosis in solitary. Ergo the hunger strike, which "did not necessarily prove that their conditions amounted to torture," writes Wallace-Wells. "But it did suggest something else: that perhaps human isolation of the kind that Pelican Bay was built to achieve was impossible." Click for his full article, or read the Nation's report on hunger-striking inmates at a Colorado prison. (Read more hunger strike stories.)