Conditions in California prisons are so bad that a panel of federal judges ruled that they violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, but until recently the ensuing protests came mainly from lawyers rather than the inmates themselves. That changed on July 1, when thousands of inmates at one-third of the state's prisons started a hunger strike.
A core group of at least 400 inmates in four prisons continues to refuse food, protesting the way the state treats prisoners deemed to be gang members. The strike began in the Special Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, where 1,100 inmates are isolated in soundproof cells for 22 1/2 hours a day. Their sole reprieve: one hour a day outside in a small area with high concrete walls.
Prison officials say this treatment is necessary to discourage membership in prison gangs, to obtain information on gang activity and to prevent "shot-calling" — the passing of orders from gang leaders to members in other prisons or out on the streets. Moreover, they say the hunger strike is being organized by gang leaders, and some strikers who would rather not participate are being coerced. Prisoner advocates, meanwhile, say such prolonged isolation leads to mental illness and is tantamount to torture.