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A Weapon of Last Resort

It's time to reconsider the power and promise of hunger strikes — without denying the tactic’s radical, disruptive, and violent character.


Ajay Kumar had feared for his life in his home country of India. When he entered the United States in August 2018, he turned himself over to Border Patrol to ask for political asylum. As he languished in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention for over a year, his freedom of religion was regularly infringed upon, and he was placed in solitary confinement for a total of three months. In July 2019 he launched a hunger strike to protest his mistreatment, indefinite detention, and anticipated deportation. He was joined in the strike by five other Indian asylum seekers.

On November 15, 2022, the Intercept released a video of how the U.S. government responded to their action. It is the first publicly released video of a federally sanctioned force-feeding by the U.S. government. The exclusive video of Kumar’s ordeal shows five guards in anti-riot gear introducing themselves to the camera as contractors employed by Global Precision Systems. They then pin Kumar to the hospital bed; weak from having lost twenty pounds during a month of not eating, he can barely even move. After inserting a nasogastric tube, they take X-rays to verify the tube’s correct placement, since misplaced feeding tubes can cause serious injury and death. Twice, the imagery shows the tube is misplaced and must be removed and reinserted. Kumar, visibly suffering excruciating pain, moans, vomits, and spits blood. After the third, finally successful attempt, the force-feeding begins. Kumar recalls that for the next twenty to twenty-five days, the tube caused an intense burning sensation, and he had difficulty breathing and sleeping. He lost forty-five pounds during his hunger strike, which lasted seventy-six days. ICE finally released Kumar on September 26, 2019. He has been awaiting his court hearing since.

Hunger strikes in ICE detention centers are common, and their frequency increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Detention Watch Network, an estimated 1,600 people in ICE detention participated in hunger strikes from 2015 to 2019. Their demands varied; many sought release while awaiting a court date and an end to the use of solitary confinement. Then, in 2020, as a result of horrors unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers jumped dramatically: between March and mid-July, nearly 2,500 people launched hunger strikes to protest unsanitary conditions and abysmal health care. In their joint research report, the American Civil Liberties Union and Physicians for Human Rights found that ICE officials took pains to hide hunger strikes from public view (like this one) and engaged in routinized coercion and retaliation against hunger strikers.

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Hunger strikes are forbidden in detention centers—as in other prisons—because they disrupt order. ICE guards threaten, beat, and pepper spray hunger strikers. They place them in solitary confinement. They also often resort to force-feeding and force-hydration, as they did to Kumar. Technically, ICE facility administrators must seek judicial authorization before force-feeding and force-hydrating hunger strikers, but courts systematically approve these requests on the basis of ICE’s interest in preserving the lives in its custody.

Authorities consider hunger strikes to be disruptive, coercive, and violent. Sympathetic lawyers and activists, such as those at the ACLU and PHR, affirm the right to hunger strike on the basis of the right to refuse medical treatment and the right to freedom of expression, given what they see as the hunger strike’s nonviolent nature. They associate the hunger strike with the fasts of moral persuasion that were central to Gandhi’s arsenal of nonviolence. Yet Gandhi himself contrasted his Satyagrahic fasts, which he he conceived as pleas to his fellow Indians and mainly undertook outside prison, with the hunger strikes of the English Suffragettes and Irish Republicans, which he condemned as coercive, violent, and tantamount to blackmail. The hunger strike’s association with Gandhian nonviolence, then, results from a misunderstanding of Gandhi’s philosophy.

Still, it is essential to defend incarcerated persons’ right to hunger strike—but we ought to do so without denying the tactic’s radical, disruptive, and self-violent character, and without recourse to legal arguments based either in the right to refuse treatment or in the right to freedom of expression. Instead, given the use of the tactic as a last resort, the right to hunger strike should be based on the fundamental right entrenched in the First Amendment to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Hunger strikes are prohibited and repressed nearly everywhere. Franco-Palestinian lawyer Salah Hamouri was placed in solitary confinement by the Israeli government in September 2022 because of the hunger strike he staged with twenty-nine other administrative detainees to protest their prolonged incarceration without charge. In the United States, authorities argue that hunger strikers disrupt the normal functioning of prisons by imposing more workload on staff. In France most hunger strikers do not benefit from any medical management; they, too, are often in solitary confinement.

Crucially, authorities view hunger strikes as essentially coercive and akin to blackmail.

In 2006, the Guantánamo Bay detention camp commander described the suicides of three detained individuals who had taken part in hunger strikes to protest their indefinite detention as “an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.” Israel’s minister of public security and strategic affairs described a hunger strike by 1,200 Palestinian prisoners as “political jockeying” and “extortion.” When Bobby Sands, a leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, died on the sixty-sixth day of his hunger strike in 1981, a British tabloid newspaper exulted: “Blackmail has failed!”

Yet precisely because of this disruptive power, the hunger strike is a principal instrument for protecting the rights of prisoners in all kinds of carceral setting, be it a penitentiary, a jail, a military prison, a detention center, or a refugee camp. It is extremely effective: transnational sociological research on more than a thousand hunger strikes undertaken between 1906 and 2004 found a success rate of more than 75 percent.

Historically, hunger strikes tended to be organized by political prisoners, such as Russian dissidents, English suffragettes, Irish Republicans, and Indians under the British Raj. Conversely, in the twenty-first century, the majority of hunger strikes are waged by people who—like migrants in detention centers and people incarcerated in high-security prisons—were not previously organized. In 2001 more than 2,000 Tanzanian refugees went on hunger strike to protest the Kenyan government’s threats to transfer their leaders to another camp. More than 3,000 hunger strikes took place in UK migrant detention centers between 2015 and 2019. In California in 2013, about 30,000 incarcerated people took part in a hunger strike to protest authorities’ indefinite and prolonged use of solitary confinement and other actions the strikers said amounted to torture.

Yet hunger strikers, for all their successes over the years, could benefit from more sustained public attention. Their power lies in part in their ability to direct spectators’ gazes to their emaciated bodies and, through those bodies, onto their conditions of confinement. But unless they are massive or undertaken by famous people—like Alexei Navalny (the main Russian opponent of Vladmir Putin imprisoned on false charges since 2021)—hunger strikes rarely make headlines. They happen behind high walls and barbed wires and are easily kept hidden from the public. Prison authorities tend to operate in secrecy, documenting complaints and hunger strikes erratically and often refusing to comply with journalists’ and lawyers’ freedom-of-information requests to access documents.

But would more media coverage make a dent in people’s perception? The public does not appear to care much about the fate of those who are imprisoned. Persons awaiting trial in jail or sentenced to state prison are often considered “criminals” who got what they deserved. Those detained at Guantánamo Bay under the status of “unlawful enemy combatants” were (are, still) branded as “terrorists.” Migrants seeking asylum are called “illegal” or “invaders.” These essentializing labels stigmatize incarcerated people, deny their humanity, and relegate them to the status of society’s parasites. They invite the public not to worry about what happens in prison. In 2006, ten people serving long sentences at Clairvaux, France, coauthored a “call for the restoration of the death penalty” (which was abolished in France in 1981), saying they would rather be executed than “buried alive” in a climate of “general indifference.”

State actors should not be allowed to retaliate against hunger strikers by beating them, isolating them, or force-feeding them. Such coercion constitutes an unjustifiable violation of human rights superimposed on the injustices that the strikers seek to denounce in the first place. That is, the right to hunger strike should be recognized and legally protected.

Sympathetic lawyers who currently try to secure such protection tend to ground the right to hunger strike in two other well-established rights: the right to refuse medical treatment and the right to free speech. The right to refuse medical treatment, a bedrock of medical ethics and basic human right, prohibits force-feeding and force-hydrating. Freedom of speech, a fundamental right in liberal democracies, would prohibit punishing the hunger strikers. Lawyers’ defense of the right to hunger strike is further always premised on the nonviolent nature of the hunger strike.

However, this argumentative strategy is misguided and unhelpful, as it misses what hunger strikes are all about.

First, asserting a basis in the right to refuse lifesaving treatment isn’t very effective because prison officials have an array of tools to retaliate against and punish strikers with nonmedical interventions, including placement in isolation and denial of certain privileges.

Second, the widely accepted substantial limitations on speech in prison—on the grounds that prisons have ostensibly “legitimate penological interests”—means that courts often object to hunger strikers by noting they could have expressed their grievances administratively and without breaking the rules. The grievance mechanisms that are available to incarcerated people, however, are woefully inadequate; and the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, to name one barrier to vindicating incarcerated people’s rights, exacerbated the problem. Since the law was designed to decrease the incidence of litigation within the court system, its effect was “to limit prisoners’ access to the legal system to address their grievances.”

Third, hunger strikes in prison are not nonviolent, rendering advocates’ legalistic defenses hollow. To refuse to eat is not itself violent, but to willfully starve oneself is, although the violence is self-directed. Damages to one’s health are serious and irreversible once the body has exhausted its resources of sugar and fat and begins to draw on muscle and organ tissues, a process that can begin after as little as three days of starvation. Even if a hunger strike is undertaken at the peak of health, beyond forty-five days death is a real risk. Hunger strikers turn this violence into a spectacle, thereby magnifying the oppressive conditions that drove them to such self-violence: We’d rather die than live like this, they say, or, in the formulation of the Clairvaux Ten, better dead than buried alive.

Finally, to threaten to starve oneself for the purpose of exerting pressure on a target and forcing concessions is, indeed, coercive in the technical sense: whether it is blackmail or not, it seeks to compel authorities to choose a certain course of action. This is especially the case in a carceral setting, and in response courts will readily credit prison officials’ asserted need to maintain order as grounds for dismissing or disregarding incarcerated people’s right (if that even exists) to hold a hunger strike that may destabilize the prison. Thus, hunger strikers weaponize that which prison authorities are, at least in theory, supposed to care for, and which is ultimately the only thing they have control over, to wit, their own bodies. As Abdellatif Laâbi, the Moroccan poet and dissident exiled in France since 1985, writes in “The Hunger Strike”:

the only weapon we’ve left
is this irrepressible
breath still inside us
which we push to the furthest of limits
risking its death
to safeguard our dignity.

This weapon of last resort, the only one left, is effective because it uses the oppressed body as leverage to pressure authorities. By starving themselves, agents demand respect for their and their fellows’ human rights, at the same time affirming their dignity and political agency.

It is, then, essential to defend the right of incarcerated persons to hunger strike without denying the tactic’s coercive and self-violent nature, and without relying on the right to refuse treatment or on the right to freedom of expression. Given the use of the tactic as a last resort—in a context where abuses are rampant and grievance mechanisms are limited and systematically inadequate—the right to hunger strike should instead be based on the fundamental right to petition for redress, which, in the United States, is rooted in the First Amendment. Incarcerated people who wage hunger strikes alert authorities and the public to the grave abuses they suffer and demand review and redress.

However, incarcerated persons often wage hunger strikes without any hope of redress, and with nothing but contempt for the authorities who imprison them and who would adjudicate their grievances. To account for these hunger strikes, it is necessary to move beyond legal arguments to develop a political ethics of prison resistance. From such a perspective, the hunger strike is a weapon of (collective) self-defense against carceral oppression that affirms the dignity and freedom of those who engage in it and who enact their self-determination in the here and now. It points to an abolitionist horizon and invites the public to contemplate it.

For more from the author about the use of hunger strikes, read her essay “The Right to Hunger Strike” in American Political Science Review.

Image: Alan Pope/Unsplash