Inmate Fast Rather Than Cut Principles

Arizona Republic, July 21, 1989
By E.J. Montini

Donald Guyer spends his days in bed in his maximum-security cell at the Arizona State Prison in Florence. If he stands up quickly, he becomes dizzy and blacks out. Walking only a few steps tires him. He has constant stomach cramps. Guyer used to be a husky, healthy 29-year old. but, over the past 51 days, his weight has dropped to 144 pounds from 182. His trousers droop. Talking on the phone is an effort. If Guyer willed it, however, he could be well again. He could be better today. But he does not will it. For the past 51 days, quietly and alone, Donald Guyer has been starving himself.

On May 31, Guyer began a hunger strike as a protest against the state Department of Corrections policy requiring all inmates to be clean-. Since then, he's only had water to drink. He eats nothing. For the past year and a half, Guyer has practiced Sikh Dharma, a religious faith group, requiring, among other things, that its male members not cut their hair or shave their beards. Members believe that the body is perfect and should not be desecrated. So ever since the grooming policy went into effect in early December, Guyer has refused to comply. Because of that, prison officials periodically handcuff Guyer to a restraint belt and shave him. Guyer's continuos violation of prison policy led him to be transferred from a minimum security to a maximum security cell. "I've tried every form of communication", he told me in a phone conversation from prison. "I've tried the inmate-letter process, the inmate grievance process. I've spoken to every person willing to speak to me. An a lot have said, "Yes, you may be right, but, we have to do this'. I just don't know what else to do." So he stopped eating.

Guyer wrote me on the 43rd day of his fast. I spoke to him on the 49th day. I wanted to find out whether Donald Guyer is starving, or whether he is only starving for attention. It turns out he is both. "I as a person, needed to do something", he said, "When they crossed the line and actually violated my personal body, I had to strike back or make some kind of a statement. This is the only thing left I could think to do." Guyer has stuck back physically before. He is in prison for aggravated assault. He's been there since 1986 and converted to Sikh Dharma. I asked him "What if people say you became a Skih just to get around the grooming policy?" "If people believe that, there's not a whole lot I can really do," Guyer said. "I cannot prove my sincerity to other people, other that by living by Sikh tenets, which I'm trying to do." Mike Arra, spokesman for the Corrections Department, said that Guyer's vital signs are being monitored daily by a prison nurse. He said that if Guyer shows signs of slipping into a coma, the prison will seek a court order to transfer Guyer to a hospital where he can be forced-fed intravenously. Arra also said, "What Mr. Guyer is doing will in no way alter the prison policy on grooming."

Guyer understands all this. He understands, as well, that there will be little public sympathy for his position, that people will say he gave up his rights to wear a beard when he chose to commit a crime. "I gave my civil rights up when I broke the law", he said, But, I don't believe anything I've done has destroyed my right to know God or be with God." Guyer's health could start failing within a week or two. If he persists, his fast will cause us more cramps that it does him. As it is, we have a tough time swallowing the notion that a convicted felon might have faith and conviction. We like it even less when the idea is forced-fed to us by a starving man.

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