Utah inmates on hunger strike over ‘squalid’ living conditions

Entrance to the Wasach facility, Utah State Prison, Draper, UT ©
A group of 42 inmates at the Utah State Prison is on hunger strike for the fifth day. While Utah authorities say the protest is about gang leaders, the inmates have complained about squalid living conditions and lack of rehabilitation programs.

The strike began on July 31, with prisoners at the Draper, Utah facility refusing breakfast. All 42 inmates on strike are “documented gang members” at the maximum-security facility, the Utah Department of Corrections (UDC) said in a release quoted by the Salt Lake Tribune. Prison officials said one of the inmates’ demands was the “release of gang leaders now housed in a different maximum-security unit.”

However, the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says it received a number of letters from the inmates complaining about “squalid” living conditions, lack of exercise or rehabilitation opportunities.

“Despite initial reports that stated the strike concerns the release of certain individuals, it is the understanding of the ACLU of Utah that the protest is centered on conditions in which the hunger strikers and other prisoners in their unit are living,” the organization said in a statement.

Several dozen prisoners from the Special Threat Group (STG) in the Uinta 2 Housing Unit at the prison have written the ACLU recently, complaining about a number of conditions at the prison. The letters say prisoners lack adequate nutrition, medical treatment, and supplies to maintain the hygiene of their cells.

"We understand these prisoners have been determined to present a sort of special threat, but that does not mean the extreme isolation reported to us is justified," said ACLU Utah legal director, John Mejia. “When we hear from that many prisoners all at once, in such a short period of time, it really is an eye opener for us.”

STG prisoners say they are confined to their cells for 47-hour stretches, allowed an hour outside only three times a week, accompanied by their cellmate. They are also denied work opportunities and access to rehabilitation and education programs, according to the letters received by the ACLU.

“We have had enough of these squalid living conditions and would like to be treated with respect and dignity, with the opportunity to better ourselves,” one prisoner wrote.

UDC officials say the ACLU did not bring up any issues at the July 21 meeting with prison officials, attended by other advocacy groups. While the UDC is considering policy changes that would allow maximum-security inmates greater access to programs and time out of their cells, the “Department does not capitulate to demands, threats or intimidation from inmates,” said UDC spokeswoman Brooke Adams.

The UDC has inventoried food in every inmate’s cell, and will continue to offer meals as regularly scheduled, Adams said. She added that some inmates have accepted juice packets and consumed food bought at the prison commissary.

Utah passed a law in 2012 allowing for forced feeding of prisoners, after an inmate with schizophrenia died after refusing food he believed to be poisoned. However, under the procedure envisioned by HB194, the prison would have to petition a judge for a hearing in each case, and give every individual inmate the right to attend the hearing, testify, present evidence and cross-examine witnesses.

In an editorial Tuesday, the Salt Lake Tribune urged the authorities to improve prison conditions without appearing to cave in to inmates’ demands. Even the most serious offenders eventually serve their time, the paper’s editors wrote, which is why the inmates on strike “can't be dismissed simply as an untrustworthy bunch who should be left to rot.”