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SLU students go hungry to bring attention to prisoners’ plight

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CANTON — As students in St. Lawrence University’s Sullivan Student Center walked by with taco salads and pizza slices, Thomas B. Matt and Star-quana Jackson went hungry Friday afternoon to call attention to the plight of inmates in American prisons.

Mr. Matt, a sophomore, said six other students were joining him on a four-day hunger strike to protest the use of solitary confinement.

“There are currently 80,000 American prisoners under solitary confinement, though technically its use is illegal per international law,” he said. “It can drive people insane. The purpose of putting people in prison is rehabilitation, but people are coming out worse off when they are released.”

Mr. Matt cited a 2012 New York Civil Liberties Union report that said approximately 4,500 people, or 8 percent of the entire New York prison population, are locked down for 23 hours each day in isolation cells. Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone repeatedly was cited within the report for extensive use of solitary confinement.

John M. Collins, chairman of St. Lawrence University’s department of global studies, said the truncated hunger strike succeeds in grabbing students’ attention.

“This has never been a campus up to its neck in political activism,” he said. “I think their message, that this issue is important and it deserves our attention, gets through. Prisoners are human beings, so this is a human rights issue.”

Ms. Jackson said the practice of putting people in solitary confinement occurs at prisons in the north country.

“This is actually kind of a good place for this kind of protest. Not many students know there are five prisons within a 30-mile radius of campus,” she said. “New York prisons have been criticized for using it as an arbitrary punishment.”

Mr. Jackson said solitary confinement isn’t used only on violent inmates, but also on people violating prison rules.

“It could be something as benign as smoking in the wrong area or littering,” she said, adding some inmates spend years or decades in solitary confinement.

Mr. Matt said the hunger strike was to call attention to the American prison system in general.

“We want to make a powerful statement,” he said. “Most people don’t know we have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Three million Americans, almost one in one hundred, are in prison, and most of them for nonviolent crimes.”

Ms. Jackson said she also was protesting inequality in the justice system and drug laws in the United States.

“Drugs need to be decriminalized,” she said. “If drugs were legal, we could have more rehabilitation programs and fewer people incarcerated.”

She argues the proliferation of privately operated prisons has led to the development of a prison-industrial complex, where companies lobby lawmakers for more and stricter laws, thus increasing their business.

The students have set up tables in the student union, inviting community members to sign petitions supporting prisoners’ rights. Some of them also have taken vows of silence during the period. Today, at the conclusion of their hunger strike, they will deliver speeches at the Student Center on prisoners’ rights.

Mr. Matt said the students were inspired by a 6,600-prisoner hunger strike in California’s prison system.

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