Imprisoned human rights activist, journalist, and author Martin Gottesfeld wrote this article on the 55th day of his prison hunger strike and submitted it from solitary confinement at Metropolitan Correctional Center New York. He is currently being held without bail on hacking charges brought by controversial Boston U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and her cybercrime chief, Adam J. Bookbinder, whose office prosecuted Internet innovator and activist Aaron Swartz, culminating in his suicide. Gottesfeld is accused of knocking Boston Children’s Hospital off the Internet in the defense of abused patient Justina Pelletier.
On the 43rd day of my hunger strike I was told the U.S. Marshalls had ordered my transfer to a facility in New York that was better equipped to handle my medical condition. At that point I had gone about four days without any fluids whatsoever and to make my wishes and refusal to provide medical consent crystal clear, I had written “No IV DNR” on the inside of both my elbows. Hey, if the DOJ wanted to allow notorious federal prosecutor Carmen Ortiz and her lackeys, to keep holding me because I tried to protect innocent, learning disabled teenager Justina Pelletier from abuse, torture, and an agonizing death, then I wanted to make sure they were fully committed to backing Ortiz up as she makes a pet toy and total mockery of our justice system yet again. After all, when Justina was suffering, Ortiz’s office couldn’t be bothered to even make a phone call to inquire as to whether her civil and human rights were being upheld (and they weren’t). But I digress, I was not allowed to call my wife before the prison transfer, but I was promised I’d be able to call her upon my arrival.
Dubious, but still hopeful the move was a sign of the increasing pressure of my very public hunger strike. I’m cuffed, shackled, and loaded into a van with an unusually heavy complement of three officers for one inmate. On the way, they refused to stop and get food for themselves even when I told them I wouldn’t mind and that I could no longer simply just return to eating normally when I wished. You see, word of the cause I’m fighting for had gotten around to some of the staff and I had actually discussed it with the sergeant in charge of my transport in detail before.
“We’re not doing that to you,” he told me.
Shortly into the trip, mystery set in. Everyone in the van had assumed that “facility in New York” meant MDC Brooklyn, which would have been the usual next stop in the federal prison system. However when the officers put the address into the GPS, it was on Manhattan Island. The sergeant made a phone call to confirm the location and told me that in all his years he’d never heard of The Federal Bureau of Prison’s “MCC New York,” our apparent destination.
Hours later, we arrived.
“Can you walk?” The sergeant asked me.
My mouth was dry, my kidneys hurt constantly, and I was prone to muscle cramps from dehydration and low electrolyte levels. Standing made me dizzy and I fatigued easily. However, I had rested in the van, and felt up to the Wolfenstein-esque maze of halls and locked doors that are typical for the prison intake/discharge process.
“I think so,” I replied.
Once inside, the transporting officers explain the situation with the hunger strike and hand the receiving desk my considerable pile of casework. It’s the last time I’d see entire reams of legal papers and reference books before they go missing, directly afterwards.
I’m brought to a supply room and “stripped out.” While I’m undressing, squatting, spreading my gluts, and coughing, the guard watching me notices the writing on my arms and asks about my strike. I give him the basic gist, loaded with the words “allegedly,” “supposedly,” etc., that our lawyers all tell us to use in here. I refer him to my Huffington Post articles as my throat is dry and I’ve tired of explaining this whole travesty over and over again: from the troubled teen industry, to Justina Pelletier, Carmen Ortiz, the CFAA, and Aaron Swartz. He’s upset though, it seems he wants a confession.
Is he an FBI agent? Is he looking to earn his way there? I note the name embroidered on his shirt. It could easily be made up for all I know. I dub him “The Interregator.”
After that awkward moment I’m put in a waiting room with an emaciated looking man from Africa. He was clutching his hand and wincing. We speak briefly and it turns out we’re both on hunger strikes, but he’s also on trial. His hand, had been, slammed in a door by a staff member, a supposed “accident.” However when I later heard them speak of how “he’ll learn,” and laugh, I had my doubts.
Suddenly, the holding cell opened to reveal a large guard gratuitously eating pizza. It seemed he was intentionally being noisy and he definitely overplayed the role of savoring his meal. The pizza smelled good, but his attempt belied a fundamental misunderstanding of how long-term hunger strikes work.
With a devious grin, he asked me, “Do you want to smell this pizza?”
“I already can. No, thank you,” I reply.
About two weeks into my hunger strike, and for the first time I can remember, my sinuses completely cleared and my sense of smell heightened beyond my wildest imagination, an apparent survival mechanism to help find sustenance when the body is facing starvation.
The guard closes the door. My African companion and I exchang glances, shake our heads, and laugh. I lay down on the hardwood bench. Exertion is the enemy, and I’ll take all of the rest I can get before trudging wherever else they are going to shuffle me.
Time passes quickly and quietly. About an hour and a half later, they summon me for the intake screening. I hadn’t been mistreated there yet, so I cooperate.
They take my blood pressure sitting, standing, and laying down, as well as my blood glucose, oxygen saturation, and pulse. They do their customary TB test and then take my weight for the first time in three days without fluids. My last measure had been 171 pounds, down from where I had started my strike at 204. I weigh in at 158 pounds almost the entire recent 13 pound drop was due to dehydration.
When I go back out to the receiving desk, the staff asks me to confirm how long I had been on the strike.
“October 3rd” I tell them. They are surprised.
“You haven’t eaten anything?” they ask.
“I was taking some fluids until a few days ago: water, Gatorade, occasionally chicken broth, and “Jell-O.” (You may be surprised, as I was, to hear that medically speaking “Jell-O” is a clear fluid.) “No solid food.”
“The Interrogator” calls me a “fraud” and says, “That’s not a hunger strike,” and tells them to be sure to turn off the water in my cell. I briefly think about responding that I’d like to see him do what I had and then I’d be happy to discuss what exactly does and does not constitute a hunger strike, but think better of it. I ask to call my wife, and am told I’ll have to speak to my unit staff about it, but that I should be able to make “some” calls with the lieutenant.
From there, I am in handcuffs once more, and brought to the “Special Housing Unit,” or “SHU” (pronounced like “shoe,”) a modern euphemism for solitary confinement. I’m “stripped out” again. and changed from brown clothes to orange, before being re-cuffed. When in the SHU, you’re always cuffed outside your cell. You have to stand with your back to the door and place your hands through a slot before and after leaving so they can take the cuffs on and off. It’s dehumanizing. No matter what any prison official tries to tell you about other reasons, that’s exactly the point.
On the walk to my new abode they ask me if I want writing paper and envelopes. I don’t know if mine have survived the trip and their processing so I say yes. When we arrive at my cell, my escort throws them all over the place before sarcastically saying, “Sorry.”
I fall asleep quickly. It had been a long, busy day, and I was physically weak and exhausted.
Early the next morning I’m brought to medical for the end of the intake process. I’m paraded through a conference room full of men in white coats looking at me like I’m a zoo exhibit. I’m still in orange clothes and cuffed behind my back.
“I’ll see him in here,” one of them said as he stands up and leads my escorts to an exam room, with me in tow. His coat said “Dr. Anthony Bussunich.” He reminds me of the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert, and I’m soon to discover it’s a more fitting simile than I initially thought.
He turns on a digital scale and tells me to hop-on.
I tell him that I will not consent to any medical procedures, as long as, I am handcuffed, being kept in the SHU, and being prevented from speaking to my wife. The conversation goes back and forth, going nowhere, with him citing Bureau of Prisons policy, that hunger strikers are kept in the SHU, and me vigorously asserting my right to decline all medical intervention.
He tries to scare me. First, he goes over the dangers, of the hunger strike, and especially the stoppage of fluids. I’m familiar with all of that and un-phased.
Then he tells me that once I pass out, they’ll be allowed to hydrate me to keep me alive. I inform him I have a DNR, health care proxy, and living will; that my wife has very specific instructions and that she knows whom she married. He asks to see those documents, which he has to know I can’t provide while I’m held incommunicado, before telling me they don’t matter, that the Bureau of Prisons has legal authority to keep me alive. Technically, he is right, but ethically it’s a much foggier area and I’m sure he knows this. It’s a tense conversation between us, we’re like oil and water.
He asks if I would consent to blood work and I reiterate that I refuse all medical consent under the current conditions. He says he can get blood without consent. I tell him I look forward to writing about those events.
He follows my escorts and I to psychiatry, probably hoping that they’ll deem me incompetent. Next, I meet a forensic mental health expert whom I refuse to speak too. She notices the writing on my arms and asks if I’m suicidal. I reiterate my refusal to speak. She threatens to place me on “suicide watch” in a paper gown before telling me that she “doesn’t want” to do that to me though. I tell her to do what she has to while thinking about how similar she seems to Simona Bujoreanu, the psychologist whose questionable decisions were behind the Wray and Pelletier cases at Boston Children’s Hospital.
She leaves the room to check what to do with her superiors. Dr. Bussanich took the opportunity to tell me, “This is MCC New York. Inmates who come here are quickly forgotten.”
The prison junior psychiatrist comes back and tells me I’ll be placed on suicide watch. I tell her I look forward to the headlines. There’s some quick banter back and forth. She goes and checks again. “No suicide watch” comes the ruling from up the totem pole. I thought so.
Next, I quickly decline a dental exam. The dentist does not put up a fight like the Dilbert boss and mental health doctor.
The prison guards with me were not amused. When we get back to the SHU, they put me in a different cell with frigid air blowing in constantly, and standing water pooled on the floor. For someone with a compromised immune system by more than a month of starvation, it is a massive infection waiting to happen. They tell me they will go get my legal work from my other cell “right now,” but then don’t give it to me. It sits outside my door and out of reach for more than two days.
I bundle up as best I can and take to working on one of the mammoth engineering problems I specifically chose for the strike. These problems require no pen, no paper, no calculator, have never been solved, and are of such a size and scope that any competent professional engineer could occupy themselves for years pondering them.
I’m tired, in pain, and fatigued just from walking around. I sleep most of the rest of the day, but am disturbed to decline lunch and dinner, the 128th and 129th consecutive meals that I’ve turned away. Each time I declined I asked to speak to my wife only to be denied.
The next morning I awaken early to the sound of the meal cart being pushed along my tier. I overhear one of the guards find roaches in a food tray. He’s surprised and yells to his coworker, “I hate this f***ing jail!”
I consider yelling back, “Us too!” but think better of it. On top of the obvious and sufficient reasons, my throat was so dry that speaking had become difficult, raspy, and painful. Mentally, I was grateful for their cockroach discovery, as even though I wasn’t exactly tempted to try the food in the first place, I now had a strong disincentive to do so. When they get to my cell and I decline my breakfast, they seemed less than surprised.
Later in the day, the guy in the cell next to me starts asking the guards for commissary sheets so he can order things. Different prisons have different policies about what SHU inmates can order, if anything. At MCC New York, a limited selection is allowed for inmates like us who haven’t been officially sanctioned (yet). The guy across the hall and I both join in, albeit my vocal capacity is diminished, and after many hours of asking every time a staff member happened by, we finally badger one enough to go get us the order forms.
As we receive them, both the guy across the hall and I ask for pens, to fill them out, and we’re told we’ll have to borrow one from the inmate next to me. Now, it turns out, the guy next to me had been in prison for a long time. He had been on death row, but as he later told us, “worked it down to life plus 25,” and was still appealing.
He is a prison ninja. Not only is this guy super smooth with guards, medical staff, etc., and therefore in my opinion the most gifted psychologist in the joint, but he, on the first try, whizzes his pen under the door of his cell, on an angle, and directly under the door of the guy across the hall. It’s as impressive as any trick billiards shot I’ve ever seen. A few minutes later, after filling out his order, the pen’s recipient tries the still difficult, but straighter shot directly across to me. He misses, and the pen stayed in the hallway out of reach.
“Make a line,” the guy next to me says.
I imagine some kind of makeshift prison lasso, and start to try to (re)-invent one with the very limited supplies I have. Apparently, the guy across the hall has a clearer picture of what exactly this means, as I can see him nod and walk deeper into his cell to get to work.
However, less than a minute later, I hear fluid start gushing. I look across the hall, and see arms flailing as green water continually splashes against the cell’s hall window. It starts coming out from under his door and flooding into the hallway. The guy next to me and I start pounding our doors. He’s screaming “C.O.,” but I can’t yell that loud.
It takes a couple of minutes for guards to unlock the gate to the tier and see what is going on. One goes to shut the water off. At this point, my legal work is still sitting in a bag on the hallway floor outside my cell. The other guard grabs it and puts it atop a cart before telling me to cram a blanket in the crack under my door to stop the water from coming in. I do as he says and start picking up anything else on the floor in my cell, like my shoes.
After a few minutes, the stale green water, that had been pent up for who knows how long, had all come out, and cleaner, clearer water is replacing it, pouring out from the cell across the hall. The blanket under my door is working, but there’s between a half-inch to an inch of water outside. My bag of legal work looks dry from my view, but I can’t really tell. With water still flowing, they make the guy across the hall “cuff up” in the usual way before putting him in the cell on the other side of me. He’s soaked from head to toe and looks demoralized.
When they open his door, his cell is totally, messed up. Bedding, papers, family photos, commissary, everything is drenched and strewn about. I feel awful he was trying to help me out when it happened. After another couple of minutes, they shut the water off.
There was no drain in the hall though, so the water stays until an inmate worker comes with a shop vac and starts dumping it out one load at a time. The tank fills quickly, so progress lowering the water line is slow. About an hour later, with the floor mostly dry, I ask the worker if he sees a pen on the ground. He finds it and slips it under my door.
I fill out my commissary order. At this point, I don’t know if my wife had gone through the process to deposit money for me, but I have little to lose. I order probably the most important item you can have in jail, and especially solitary, a radio, as well as a deck of cards, bar of soap, shaving gel, batteries (I wasn’t taking any chances with “batteries not included”) and stamped envelopes.
When I finish, I ask the worker to return the pen to the guy next to me, completing its odyssey. Both the guy next door and I thank the worker, who still had at least an hour of mopping ahead of him.
In the evening, a nurse came to my cell with two prescriptions. I accepted the Prilosec. I’ve always had too much stomach acid, and when there is nothing for it to do, it wears ulcers into my stomach and small intestine. However, I decline the multivitamin they try to give me.
The nurse wants to talk too, and take my blood pressure. I decline. She says, “You can’t.” I walk away from the door and go back to bed. I know my rights.
Livid, she calls for an extraction team. This would mean a half dozen or so guards in full riot gear, with shields, pepper spray, the whole nine. I find this a bit extreme, but start preparing myself nonetheless. I clear my mind, and focus my senses, preparing to remember as much as possible so I can document it later. They usually video tape extractions, but those tapes have the unsurprising tendency to get lost, overwritten, or otherwise destroyed when their contents are unfavorable to prison authorities.
My plan is to offer only non-violent resistance, and let come what may. If they want me to have medical discussions or consent to tests, I decline. If they want me out of the cell, I will make my body dead weight, not actively fighting, but making them carry me. I begin meditating.
Minutes go by, I can hear phones and radios squawking outside. The nurse is yelling, “He’s refusing to come to the door!” However, over time things get quieter. Eventually, I stop hearing the nurse complaining. The extraction team never comes.
Finally, I get up, and go to my door. I ask my fellow inmates, “Didn’t she call for an extraction?”
They nod and shrug.
The next morning, after I decline breakfast, with cockroaches still on my mind, two guards come and tell me medical wants to see me.
“Please tell them I decline,” I answer.
They nod and leave, only to return about ten minutes later telling me that we have to go down, but I can refuse everything once we get there. Visibly annoyed, and with some effort, I get up, get “cuffed up,” and we make the schlep. I’m expecting to see the same Dilbert boss doctor, but instead I’m greeted by a different man. His blue Bureau of Prisons jacket has “MDC Brooklyn,” a facility with its own current issues, embroidered on it, and not ”MCC New York.”
“Oh, great,” I tell myself. “They brought in a ringer.”
He too asks me to hop on a scale, which I decline. He asks to take my blood pressure. Again, “no.”
He asks me why I’m on a hunger strike and I, politely, tell him to look me up at The Huffington Post and Newsweek (again, dry throat etc). He asks me, “Don’t you want to know your own vitals?” I tell him sure I do, but that I won’t consent to anything medically so long as I was kept in the SHU, unable to contact my wife, and cuffed everywhere I go. Like his predecessor, he tells me that it’s the Bureau of Prisons policy to house hunger strikers in the SHU, but that if I ate something, I could leave solitary. I tell him “that’s how you break hunger strikes.”
He tries to tell me it’s so they could monitor me in case my condition worsened. I don’t even know where to start with this fallacy, so I just dive right in.
I tell him that I’m not being monitored and if I were to lose consciousness it could be hours until I’m discovered. I ask if they want to monitor me, why they don’t put me in a hospital bed with an actual heart monitor hooked up to an actual alarm? I asked what part of monitoring me requires me to be blocked from calling my wife?
I tell him that if they, were really, concerned about my condition, they wouldn’t place me in a frigid room with standing water on the floor while my immune system is compromised by over 40 days of starvation. If something does happen to me, it would probably be an infection from the cold and standing water in my cell. I tell him they can claim whatever they want about policy, but the true purpose, to break the hunger strike, was readily apparent and that my policy is to decline all medical procedures under these conditions. In my head, I think about what happened to Justina. How, her human rights were violated and she was made to suffer under the thin veil of such dubious medical claims.
He seems surprised by the litany, caught off guard by how fervent I am while in such a weak state. I also sense a beating heart though, and that I may have gotten through to him, just a bit. Therefore, I relax.
He tells me, “We don’t want you to hurt yourself like this,” referring to the hunger strike and using the royal we. Reluctantly, he also tells me that if they have to, they’ll take whatever steps are necessary in order to keep me alive. He means force feeding/forced hydration. With an earnest grimace, he tells me, “That’s unpleasant for you and unpleasant for us.”
I chuckle a bit, and reply, “Tell that to Carmen Ortiz.”
“Who’s that?” He asks.
“Someone else you should look up at The Huffington Post before we get too much further down this road, Doc” I answer.
“I will,” he says.
I believe him.
He offers me some Ensure, which I politely decline as well, and my escorts take me back to the SHU.
“The Interrogator” is there when we get back. He asks me “all that stuff you wrote in The Huffington Post, will you tell me that you did it?”
He must mean the first article.
“I’ll neither confirm nor deny that,” I tell him.
“That’s just wonderful,” he said sarcastically before I was put back in my refrigerator of a cell.
A little while later, our commissary orders come, and I was able to finagle a pen of my own. However, they forgot my stamped envelopes, which I needed to write my wife and Rolling Stone. I ask the guy next door, who had since been moved across the hall as part of the still ongoing flood cleanup effort, if I could borrow some stamps until they give me my stuff. He obliges, and I handwrite a message thanking him and explaining my situation, but I’ve yet to get it delivered to him.
Later that night, they finally give me my legal work, and my stamps survived. My new friend doesn’t want his back though, and tells me not to worry about it. I asks if he needs anything. He answers batteries. It worked out well, I had ordered extra.
In prison, solidarity really matters, and even in solitary there are ways to help each other out. As a slightly modernized version of the old adage goes, no person is an island.
Following inquiries from journalists, Gottesfeld reports his cell is no longer cold, the standing water has been fixed, and he has been able to call his wife twice in two days. He is still in the SHU, and he took in fluids to allow for an investigation of his case. As of today, Monday January 2nd, Marty is again refusing all fluids.