Media coverage of prison hunger strikes is often grossly underreported, unless the hunger strikers are considered political prisoners. A case in point – the hunger strike last year in California by non-political prisoners received little attention outside of the state. Most prison hunger strikes are carried out by a handful of prisoners, but sometimes a small number can have a major impact.
Perhaps not since the 1981 hunger strike of Irish Republican Army members that resulted in the death of ten prisoners, including an elected member of the British Parliament, has an inmate hunger strike caught the public’s eye like the one going on at Guantanamo Bay. There are several theories about what initiated the hunger strike at Guantanamo, including the alleged mishandling of the Koran by guards, poor food, and being held for an indefinite term.
Guantanamo Bay’s “detention camps” have become the dumping ground for prisoners, also known as “detainees,” who are deemed to have been involved in, or associated with those involved in, terrorist activities. The Huffington Post claims that 166 prisoners are being held at Guantanamo, and that eighty-six of them have clearance to leave, but red tape and a lack of a welcome mat are keeping them locked up.
The seriousness of the situation at Guantanamo has become critical. The Huffington Post reports several attempted suicides and adds that after the order to force-feed hunger strikers was given, “There are so many detainees being force-fed that Guantanamo's medical personnel are working around the clock to keep up with the demand, and approximately 40 additional medical personnel just arrived in Guantanamo to help deal with the growing crisis.”
Historically, most Americans have held little sympathy for prisoners, and even less for those accused of committing terrorist acts against the U.S. or its citizens. Yet, the hunger strikers have supporters, if not for humanitarian reasons then for political ones. The death of one or more hunger strikers at Guantanamo is likely to set off a wave of protests against the United States. Frantic mediation attempts to end the hunger strike are underway, either overtly or covertly. Politicians and the military personnel that run Guantanamo are debating the correct course of action. The man who commands the detention camps, Col. John V. Bogdan, might do well to remember the lesson Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher learned from her handling of the IRA hunger strike -- being intractable creates martyrs, and immense sympathy and support for those dying an agonizing death.