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Prisons' solitary confinement policies to be subject of hearings

As a prison hunger strike drags on, a California senator and assemblyman announce hearings over high-security prison conditions.

August 30, 2013|By Paige St. John
  • More than 400 inmates have been held in solitary for more than a decade at Pelican Bay State Prison, near the Oregon border.
More than 400 inmates have been held in solitary for more than a decade at… (Rich Pedroncelli, AP )

SACRAMENTO — Lawmakers frustrated by a state prison hunger strike that has lasted for seven weeks said they would take on the debate over solitary confinement.

"The impasse needs to be broken," Senate Public Safety Chairwoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) said Friday as she and her Assembly counterpart Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) announced that they would hold hearings this fall on conditions in California's highest-security prisons.

Hancock said she seeks legislation addressing overcrowding in California's prisons and a lack of rehabilitation programs, in addition to policies on the use of solitary confinement.

Advocates for inmates said the call for hearings is a "positive step," but they seek more.

"I'd like to see these strong statements turned into action," such as changes in prison policy, said Isaac Ontiveros, spokesman for the advocacy group Critical Resistance.

Corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said officials welcomed the hearings to show "all of the substantive reforms that have taken place."

The hunger strike began July 8, when more than 30,000 prisoners refused meals in a demand that California end its use of indefinite solitary confinement, among other policies.

The number of strikers fell to a low of 79 last week, but by Friday, the count had rebounded to 123. Forty-one have refused meals for 54 consecutive days, with few reported medical problems beyond dehydration.

Most of the strikers are receiving up to 625 calories a day from Gatorade, about a fourth of what federal health guidelines say is required for an adult male.

Staff from the court-appointed agency that runs prison medical services met this week with hunger strikers at a prison outside Sacramento.

"They complained of dizziness and were pale and thin but still engaging and coherent," said Liz Gransee, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Court filings show that the state houses nearly 4,000 prisoners in long-term isolation cells, including more than 400 held in solitary for more than a decade at Pelican Bay State Prison, near the Oregon border. They have sued the state, saying lengthy isolation is tantamount to torture.

The state contends it needs such isolated conditions to control members of violent prison gangs.

Gov. Jerry Brown has made no public comment on the protest, and his administration repeatedly has said it would not negotiate on the strikers' demands.

But prison officials and state lawyers have met several times in the last two months with protest leaders and their advocates.

A conference call between the two sides is set for next week, said a member of the prisoners' mediation team, Laura Magnani of the American Friends Service Committee.

Representatives of the state "are not 'negotiating,' they are 'communicating,'" said Magnani, "so that's what we seek to do — communicate."

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

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