Authorities reported Saturday that fewer than two dozen inmates assigned to a special isolation wing of Pelican Bay State Prison appeared to be participating in a hunger strike to protest conditions that prisoners and their advocates charge are cruel and inhumane.
Inmates in the prison's Security Housing Unit began refusing state-issued meals at breakfast on Friday, according to Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The number of prisoners refusing meals dropped on Saturday, she said.
Prisoner-advocate groups such as the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners with Children say the unit functions as a form of indefinite solitary confinement, and that many inmates are forced to falsely accuse others of wrongdoing in order to win release from the unit. They are also demanding better food, warmer clothing, one phone call a week and easier access to correspondence courses, among other things.
Prisoners are not considered to be on a hunger strike until they miss three consecutive meals. Thornton said the prison will not issue specific numbers of potential hunger strikers until three days have passed. At that point, inmates must be seen by a doctor, according to department policy.
Thornton said some inmates have refused state-issued food, but are still eating canteen food. There have been no episodes of violence. "We're just continuing to monitor the inmates," she said.
Pelican Bay, a so-called supermax facility, is located near the Oregon border and houses 1,110 inmates in the Security Housing Unit, or roughly a third of its total population.
The unit is intended to isolate the worst inmates in California: prison-gang members and those who have committed crimes while in prison. Cells have no windows; walls and floors are soundproofed to prevent communication among inmates. Inmates are released from their cells for only 90 minutes per day to walk around a small area surrounded by high concrete walls.
Inmates and activists say the Corrections Department's policy of requiring debriefing — informing on the activities of other gang members in order to leave the unit — leads to abuse.
"It creates a vicious cycle in which people are forced to admit gang membership to get out of the SHU," said Carol Strickman, an attorney for Prisoners with Children.
That leads to inmates lying about others and inventing stories of their own gang membership in order to leave the unit, she said.
Gang investigators around California believe the unit helps reduce prison-gang control of inmates in other lockups and of gang members on the street.