Delores Canales, left, and other demonstrators gather outside the Ronald… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Sacramento — More than 400 inmates at four California prisons are in the third week of a hunger strike to protest long, punitive stays in isolation cells.
Prison officials, who refuse to allow reporters into the institutions to interview the strikers, said 49 inmates who have lost at least 10 pounds each are "being monitored closely," including seven at Pelican Bay, the maximum-security prison near the Oregon border where the hunger strike began.
An inmate at the state prison in Tehachapi in Central California has lost 29 pounds, according to Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for the court-appointed receiver in charge of prison healthcare.
Inmate advocates say thousands of inmates have joined the strike, which began July 1. Many are beginning to show dramatic weight loss and collapse with the early signs of starvation, they say.
Dozens have been sent to prison infirmaries because of irregular heartbeats and fainting, according to a statement issued Monday by a group calling itself California Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity, which represents attorneys and family members of inmates. "Most have lost 20-35 pounds," the statement said.
Major medical problems begin once a hunger striker has lost 18% of his or her body weight, according to an article from the Journal of the American Medical Assn. that prison officials said they were using as a reference for what to expect if the protest continues. Life-threatening problems typically begin when a person loses 30% of body weight.
How long it takes to reach those stages varies from person to person, according to the article.
So far, no inmate has symptoms requiring a trip to emergency clinics within prisons or specialized outside medical care, according to an email from Kincaid.
Despite repeated assurances that the situation is under control, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation refused The Times' request to visit and interview striking inmates.
"At this time, we are not allowing media into the prison due to security and safety issues," prison spokesman Oscar Hidalgo said in an email. "This hunger strike signifies a disruption in normal operation of Pelican Bay and our operations staff are focused completely on resolving this issue."
Two inmates at Pelican Bay required intravenous fluids over the weekend, according to Kincaid.
During a protest by inmate supporters outside prison headquarters in Sacramento on Monday, Maria Moreno, mother of two inmates at Pelican Bay, said one of her sons had lost 20 pounds and the other had lost 13 pounds. Kincaid said both of Moreno's sons began eating again last week.
The inmates are protesting lengthy stays in Security Housing Units, known as prisons within the prison, where they are sent for violating rules. They are typically kept alone in their cells for 22 hours a day, allowed out for medical visits and for exercise in individual wire cages on the prison yard.
The only way to get released from the unit, inmates say, is to confess that they are prison gang members or offer guards incriminating information about others who are gang members. Doing that, they say, puts their lives at risk and can put their families in danger.
"There is another way for inmates to be removed from the SHU," Hidalgo said in his email. "They can maintain an inactive status from any gang involvement for six years."
Inmates and advocates want that policy abolished.
"It is absolutely unconscionable and inhumane for anyone to think that solitary confinement for six years is OK," said Linda Evans, an organizer for All of Us or None, a group that provides legal services to prisoners with children.