Supporters of inmates involved in the hunger strike bow their heads in a… (Melanie Mason / Los Angeles…)
SACRAMENTO — California's prisons chief has agreed to meet for the first time with advocates for inmates who are in their fourth week of a hunger strike over conditions in solitary confinement.
"It's progress," said Ron Ahnen, president of the Oakland-based group California Prison Focus, which publishes a newsletter circulated to thousands of state inmates that hunger strike organizers used to broadcast their protest.
Ahnen is among a small group of activists set to meet Friday with Jeffrey Beard, Gov. Jerry Brown's appointed head of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Other expected attendees include a representative from the American Friends Service Committee.
The advocates were part of a mediation group that helped settle the state's last prison hunger strikes in 2011.
Department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman downplayed the importance of the meeting, saying Beard's agreement to meet does not signal a willingness to negotiate.
"You can call it discussions," Hoffman said.
Officials have insisted from the start that they would not negotiate with leaders of the protest, which they say is organized by violent prison gangs seeking greater ability to operate within the state's sprawling penal system.
But lower-level administrators last week solicited feedback from protest leaders at Pelican Bay State Prison on a process the state is developing to review solitary confinement cases.
The meeting with Beard comes on the 26th day of the mass protest, which officials said had about 500 participants Thursday, including 331 inmates who have refused meals since the strike began July 8.
The four core leaders of the protest continue to refuse food, but two of their alternates are eating, one because of health reasons, said Carol Strickman, a prisoner-rights lawyer who met with the inmates earlier this week.
Liz Gransee, a spokeswoman for the agency that oversees prison medical care, said five hunger strikers required treatment Thursday, including one admitted to the state prison hospital in Corcoran with kidney pain.
As the protest has dragged on, reports of trouble have emerged.
Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said an inmate at Corcoran was allegedly beaten by his cellmate Saturday for refusing to smuggle food to striking prisoners.
Joyce Hayhoe, a prison medical administrator who toured the Corcoran prison earlier this week, said she saw a fasting prisoner take food from medical staff and then hide it under his shirt so other prisoners would not see it.
Though most of the dozen inmates she spoke with expressed support for the hunger strike, she said, "I saw inmates who felt conflicted and pressured not to eat."
Inmate advocates say protest leaders made it clear participation in the hunger strike was voluntary. "I have no reason to believe their position has changed," Ahnen said.
At the same time, Ahnen said, he was delivering his own list of complaints Thursday to prison administrators. They included allegations by a Corcoran inmate that medical staff attempted to give him glucose gel against his will.
At Pelican Bay, Ahnen said, a 70-year-old inmate allegedly was pepper sprayed while guards searched his cell for food.
Officials denied such incidents took place. The corrections department "does not tolerate misconduct, and any allegations will be fully investigated," said Thornton.