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Assault, fear on the dark side of prison hunger strike

August 01, 2013|By Paige St. John
  • Yolanda Santoya from the Los Angeles dance group La Cuauhtemoc performs before a large group marches to California State Prison in Corcoran to support prison inmates holding a statewide hunger strike.
Yolanda Santoya from the Los Angeles dance group La Cuauhtemoc performs… (Gary Kazanjian / European…)

SACRAMENTO -- As the hunger strike of California prison inmates stretches into its 25th day, a few stories about a darker side of the protest have emerged.

A medical administrator who toured the state prison at Corcoran earlier this week said she met inmates who said they were refusing food in fear of what other prisoners would do to them if they ate.

"I saw inmates who felt conflicted and pressured not to eat," said Joyce Hayhoe, a legislative liaison for J. Clark Kelso, who was appointed by federal courts to run medical programs within California's 34 prisons.

For Hayhoe, the most disturbing image was that of a fasting prisoner who, when offered food by medical staff, hid it under his shirt so that other prisoners would not see.

Hayhoe said most of the dozen inmates she spoke with, however, were determined supporters of the hunger strike, a protest over conditions in isolation units that house more than 4,500 men.

"There is a spectrum," she said. "We talked to inmates that were fully supportive of the strike."

Corrections officials contend the strike is organized and enforced by violent prison gangs. Protest leaders and those who support them say the demonstration reflects a unified voice of inmates from different racial and ethnic groups, not the gangs that divide along the same lines.

On Wednesday, nearly 500 inmates continued to refuse meals. Hayhoe said the largest concentration of those protesters are at Corcoran, though organizers of the strike are housed at Pelican Bay State Prison.

Until Saturday, the mass protest, involving more than 30,000 prisoners at its start, had been violence-free.

California prison administrators say one inmate at the Corcoran prison was attacked by his cellmate that morning when he refused to share his food with prisoners participating in the hunger strike.

Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the 51-year-old victim suffered a broken eye socket and broken cheekbone, and was taken to a community hospital for treatment. She said he returned to a new part of the prison on Wednesday.

"His cellmate will receive a rules violation report for battery on an inmate with serious bodily injury," Thornton said.

Any possible criminal charges are pending completion of the prison investigation, she said.

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paige.stjohn@latimes.com

Twitter: @paigestjohn

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