There's a reason prisoners go on hunger strike to protest. It is as simple as it is grim: what else can they do? When most every form of life is controlled, confined, and denied, all that is left is bare life. It is a dreadful thing indeed, when the available sites of political resistance are reduced to a human's own digestive tract. As such, every concerted hunger strike and every circumstance that prompts a hunger strike deserve our attention. Right now, that means we should focus on the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown.
Inmates at the prison, the state's highest security facility, have entered their second week of a hunger strike. Nine inmates have refused meals since March 19 in protest of restrictions placed on recreation and prison programs, including bans on religious gatherings for certain prisoners. According to prison spokespeople, the "range restriction" practice now in place means that most inmates cannot move around their enclosed housing units, and highest-security inmates are currently banned from all group programming (including GED classes and group religious worship).
The prison has cited security concerns, among them an assault on staff, for the restrictions. The strikers say their rights are being violated. The prison is constitutionally covering its ass by enabling the inmates to meet one-on-one with spiritual leaders should they request. But purportedly exceptional practices like range restriction (and even more so, solitary confinement) reveal the true nature of the entire system of incarceration.
If education programs and religious gatherings in prisons can be banned for the alleged exigencies of security, then we see that the system views these programs as inessential privileges in prison life. Such a stance belies the claim that prison serves a rehabilitative purpose—the sort served by education and communal activity. But we should already know that the aim of rehabilitation is a lie in a country that holds 80,000 people in solitary confinement, 400 of those inmates held in isolation for over a decade.
The currently small size of the Ohio hunger strike may account for its largely slipping under the public radar. It took 30,000 prisoners in 2013 hunger striking throughout the California prison system to garner major national coverage. The self-starvation and brutal force-feeding of Gitmo detainees underlined that prison camp's barbarism. But we have an ethical obligation to listen to even the smallest groups or lone hunger strikers.
The power of a hunger strike lies in its paradoxical logic. In response to state violence and the denial of basic liberties, hunger strikers deny themselves even more. The force lies in the strikers' reclaiming of what vestige is left of sovereign power when the state has removed all else. Reduced to bare life, the oppressed use that very thing as a tool for resistance. Which is not to say hunger strikes are always effective in achieving demands, they are, however, always powerful by virtue of their very form. For this reason, too, force feeding is barbaric beyond being excruciating; it denies that very last site of political resistance and personal sovereignty.
The British suffragette Constance Lytton, imprisoned for her militant activism on behalf of women, engaged in a hunger strike with 11 other suffragettes. In a letter to the Times of London written from prison in 1910, she explained the tactic as a sustained act of self-violence. "The weapons for which we ask are simple, a fair hearing, but that is refused us…Then we must have other weapons. What do other people choose when they are driven to the last extremity?…They have recourse to violence…These women have chosen the weapon of self-hurt to make their protest," she wrote. As SUNY professor of comparative literature Ewa Ziarek commented on the suffragette hunger strike, and hunger strikes in general, the act "transforms punishment into rebellion, turns subjection into the ambiguous political agency of self-hurt."
The Ohio hunger strikers include Siddique Hasan, a member of the Louisville 5, the five men convicted for roles in the 1993 prison riot, when prisoners took over the facility for 11 days and one guard and nine inmates were killed. Hasan and four others were sentenced to death. "They're running this place like a concentration camp, and we're challenging it now so others don't have to," Hasan told the AP about the ongoing hunger strike.
Whether he knows it or not, a famed prison rioter on death row engaging in a hunger strike carries important symbolic resonance. His concentration camp reference is particularly germane, since the camp is the very example used by philosopher Giorgio Agamben to exemplify a state of exception, which reveals the ghastly truth about the state of society as a whole, where humans are reduced to a state of bare life.
The figure of Hasan as a prison rioter and a hunger striker is significant precisely because a hunger strike can function like a riot—a necessary resort to violence against a violent system. Prison riots do happen, of course, but a fierce apparatus of isolation, segregation, and confinement serves to render them near-impossible. Only self-directed violence remains. If "a riot is the language of the unheard," as Martin Luther King Jr. said (and this should well include prison riots), then we might call a hunger strike the language of the brutally silenced.