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Inmates Strike Over Bid to Curb Conjugal Visits


In the first organized protest against proposed new limits on rights long cherished by state prison inmates, about 1,000 convicts at the California State Prison at Lancaster have gone on strike over a rule that would sharply restrict conjugal visits, officials said Tuesday.

The convicts, housed in one of the prison's maximum security blocks, have refused to come out of their cells since Sunday night for work, recreation, laundry or even meals, prison officials said. No violence has been reported, spokesman Dean Crenshaw said.

The strike began, officials said, in anticipation of the proposed rule that would ban overnight family visits for inmates serving time for murder, spousal abuse and a wide array of sex crimes.

The move to limit conjugal visits comes as the Department of Corrections is instituting or considering several other get-tough rules, including banning pornography, limiting access to weights in exercise yards and imposing grooming standards.

The striking inmates in the prison's C-block were surviving on soup, crackers and chips purchased from the prison canteen and squirreled away in anticipation of the protest, Crenshaw said. No end was in sight, he said, adding that prison officials were "informally talking with inmates" about a return to "regular programming" at the prison, which holds 4,100 convicts.

Prison officials would not permit interviews with striking inmates, but Robert Parker, 45, an inmate in D-block, said in a phone interview Tuesday that restricting the visits was all but certain to heighten tension inside the prison walls.

"What incentive would a man have to do right?" asked Parker, serving time for kidnaping and robbery. "You ain't got nothing to lose."

Martha Riley, 51, of Lincoln Heights agreed. Her 48-year-old husband is in C-block doing 36 years to life for murder. "What you're doing is creating a desperate sub-class with nothing to lose," she said.

Riley, who said she has had conjugal visits with her husband about every four months for the last 11 years, described the stays as "incredibly treasured" by inmate wives. "Without any intimacy," she said, "it would be very hard to maintain a marriage."

During regular visits, guards are vigilant. "That is not conducive to an exchange of feelings, openness and intimacy," she said.

Corrections Director James H. Gomez issued the new rule Monday, but decided not to implement it until after a hearing April 27, giving prisoners, their families and others time to comment.

"Family visiting is a privilege that must be earned," the proposed rule states. "Because it is unsupervised, it is a privilege based on trust and that trust must also be earned."

Conjugal visits for inmates in California date back to Ronald Reagan's tenure as governor. He instituted the program in 1968 as part of an effort to reduce homosexual rapes in prison.

Over the years, corrections officials came to see the visits as an effective reward for good behavior by inmates.

California is one of seven states that allows such visits. The state spends $3.7 million a year on the program. About 25,000 such visits take place annually.

Tucked away near the C and D yards at the Lancaster prison, which opened in 1993, are 10 one-story stucco bungalows where the 46-hour visits take place, beginning at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Wives and, in certain cases, fiancees may visit--but no girlfriends. Also allowed during the visits are parents, siblings, children, grandparents and grandchildren.

Each bungalow has two small bedrooms, one with a double bed, the other with two twin beds, Crenshaw said. There is one bathroom and another room that doubles as living room and kitchenette with a refrigerator, electric stove and dinette set with six chairs.

On Friday, Riley got a hint that the proposed rules might spark trouble. Her husband spoke of a "rumor to the effect that (prison officials) were taking away everything by regulation, including cigarettes, coffee, candy and weight (training) piles," she said.

On Sunday, only one of the 1,000 inmates in C-block came out of the cells for the evening meal, Crenshaw said. There has been some erosion in prisoner unity since then. On Tuesday night, 150 inmates from that block showed up for dinner.

Times staff writer Dan Morain in Sacramento and correspondent Mark Sabbatini in Santa Clarita contributed to this story.

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