Like many incarcerated people in the United States, those in pre-trial detention in Lane County Adult Corrections are suffering for the State’s commitment to incarceration and the lucrative prison industrial complex. Under the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, jails and prisons function as a death sentence. Detainees know that the deadly virus will spread fast inside. They understand the helplessness of the situation and that their lives are at risk, all while their rights have been stripped.
While they watched as the world outside changed to slow the spread, on the inside it was business as usual. Rather than taking protocols to slow the spread, Lane County used COVID-19 as an excuse to revoke basic rights, postpone court dates, extend the limits of pre-trial detention, hold sham trials, and risk the lives of everyone inside. In the early days, guards refused to wear masks or gloves when walking between sections. There were no extra cleaning procedures, quarantine guidelines were not being followed, and people were still forced to sleep in bunks and eat at tables that were inches away from each other.
By the time it became obvious that a class action lawsuit addressing these concerns was going nowhere, a hunger strike that lasted 11 and a half weeks had begun. It was June 21st, Father’s Day, when Bryan MacDonald first refused food from the jail that evening. He would not eat again for 29 days. He was soon joined by at least 5 other incarcerated comrades. The jail traps many people in solitary cells in order to hinder communication and would transfer people to solitary as soon as they joined the strike, so it is impossible for us to know exactly how many strikers participated. It is estimated between 20 and 25 strikers were involved. The hunger strikers were joined by solidarity strikers who would refuse one or several meals, and there were others who would eat only commissary.
The demands of the strike were:
- The release of all medically vulnerable and pretrial detainees.
- The restoration of the right to a fair and speedy trial.
- The reinstatement of the right to social visitations and visitations with lawyers.
- The return of religious services.
- The guarantee of proper PPE for prisoners, and to ensure that guards would wear masks.
It was clear to anyone closely watching the strike that those running the jail neglected the demands of the strikers because they fundamentally do not care about the people they are mandated to punish. Instead they are invested in their image, their profit, and their legitimacy. The jail and county would outright lie about what they were doing to reduce the chances of the virus spreading, they even denied the fact that the hunger strike was being waged at all. Despite these lies, the prisoners pressed on. Each day the stakes were raised. Each day the jail disregarded the hunger strike was one more day of a weary striker not getting the medical attention that they need. Not checking the strikers’ vitals was common practice.
As the strike dragged on, new strikers were announced as others ended their strike. The demands became as diverse as the strikers themselves, yet the most cited injustice over the course of the 81-day strike was that bail was set at exorbitant amounts that no one could reasonably pay. There were also many complaints about the lack of a nutritious diet as well as moldy food being served at times. Others brought up the issue of there not being an emergency call system that would notify guards if someone was in a life-threatening situation. All these demands should have been granted immediately, but the only demand that was met was that guards would wear masks and prisoners would have control of a bleach solution. The simplest of the demands, that guards wear masks, took the threat of a lawsuit, two full weeks of a hunger strike, and the first positive case of COVID-19 in the jail for them to respond in the most basic way.
The Lane Co. Jail hunger strike was yet another example of people in dire circumstances taking their health and safety concerns into their own hands with the only tools they have left at their disposal. When the state locks people in cages and deprives them from breathing free air -effectively sentencing them to death- the only bargaining chip that incarcerated people have left is their very life. The militant tactic of a hunger strike steals away from the State its power over death, inflicting the violence of the State upon one’s own body. This has been used in the most horrendous of situations by the revolutionaries from Bobby Sands and the IRA, to Guantanamo Bay, from Kurdish revolutionaries, to Black and Indigenous political prisoners, from Palestinian revolutionaries, to women suffragettes. For militants in Eugene, this hunger strike was a reminder that the space in which we live is not exempt from the violence of colonialism, imperialism, anti-Black racism, sexism, and capitalism which uphold carceral institutions and structures our very lives. We live in a war zone and joining this struggle helped reveal that to us. And so, this will not be the last hunger strike to challenge state authority. It is our obligation to join in this fight to dismantle and to destroy the carceral capitalist State. Hasta Siempre la Victoria. Until the Entire Prison World Is Reduced to Ashes.