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29,000 California prison inmates refuse meals in 2nd day of protest

Ten inmates who began a hunger strike earlier are under medical watch. Solitary confinement conditions are a main focus of the protests.

July 09, 2013|By Paige St. John
  • Ten inmates at High Desert State Prison in northeast California began a hunger strike July 1, a week before the statewide action, and were placed under medical supervision Tuesday.
Ten inmates at High Desert State Prison in northeast California began a… (California Department…)

SACRAMENTO — Ten state inmates were placed under medical observation Tuesday as tens of thousands of others refused meals for a second day in a mass protest at California prisons.

The ten, who launched their own hunger strike July 1, a week before the statewide action, are at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, in northeast California. They were being watched by prison medical staff for signs of distress, said the federal monitor in charge of inmate healthcare.

The inmates issued a hand-written letter spelling out their demands for improved prison conditions, including cleaner facilities, better food and more access to the prison library. It is one of at least eight demand letters California prison officials had in hand as some 29,000 inmates — a slight decline from 30,000 Monday — refused meals Tuesday.

Corrections officials said the wide protests — mostly focused on solitary confinement conditions — were causing no disruptions, although 2,000 inmates refused to show up for their prison jobs or attend classes. The state does not acknowledge a hunger strike officially until inmates have missed nine consecutive meals, which would occur late Wednesday.

The protest comes at a time of turmoil in the California prison system, criticized by the federal courts for unconstitutionally poor care of inmates and an unchecked outbreak of potentially deadly valley fever. State officials recently agreed to comply with a federal judge's order to move 2,600 inmates at risk of contracting the disease from Pleasant Valley and Avenal state prisons.

Federal judges have ordered Gov. Jerry Brown to release thousands of prisoners by the end of the year to ease the crowding they say lies at the root of the care problem. They have refused the governor's attempt to delay their order.

The mass meal action was organized by inmates in California's tightest security units at the state's most isolated prison, Pelican Bay, near the Oregon border. Since January, they have used a network of family members and inmate advocacy groups to spread their call to arms.

The strike was timed to coincide with the beginning of Ramadan, a month when Muslims fast during the day. Inmates reached by The Times said that provided a measure of protection for Muslim inmates participating in the protest, who were less likely to be cited for violating rules.

Corrections officials said Ramadan complicates their count of those who refuse meals in protest rather than as religious observance.

The protest centers on California's continued use of solitary confinement for indefinite periods — some inmates stay there for decades. Those conditions are also the subject of a lawsuit in federal court.

Strike participants at nearly two-thirds of the state's 33 prisons added their own objections.

The hunger strikers at High Desert State Prison, in addition to asking for warm clothing and better food, are demanding a chance to address grievances with prison officials on a weekly basis. They also object to what they say are allegations of gang-related activity used "to target the Hispanic population."

For several hundred inmates refusing meals at the California State Prison in Lancaster, the protest is "mostly about lifers not getting family visits," said one inmate, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from corrections officers.

On Tuesday, corrections officials and prisoner advocates battled to control the message about what was occurring behind the guard towers and electrified fences.

"Everything is still normal; everything is still quiet," said corrections department spokeswoman Terry Thornton.

Civil rights lawyers meeting with their clients, including two of the protest leaders, at Pelican Bay State Prison said corrections officers distributed a memo Monday informing inmates in the isolation unit that their allowed number of books was being cut in half, from 10 to 5.

"Our clients believe this to be punishment," said attorney Anne Weills.

A Pelican Bay spokesman, Lt. Chris Acosta, told The Times the memo was "poorly written" and would be rescinded. Inmates would be allowed to keep their books, he said.

Advocates said they had no access to information on how the inmates leading the protest were faring.

"The corrections department is really in the business of isolation," said Laura Magnani, a member of the American Friends Service Committee in Sacramento. "We're trying to open up communication."

Her group and others who helped mediate an end to a hunger strike in 2011 said they met with corrections officials before the protests, but since then no talks have been scheduled.

They said state officials, in anticipation of the coming strike, agreed in June to minor requests for additional food and clothing, giving inmates permission to keep unlimited amounts of candy and instant soup in their cells, within a 6-cubic-foot limit for personal property.

After the 2011 protests, California adopted new criteria for placing inmates in the state's Secure Housing Units, isolation cells where prisoners have little contact with the outside world. The state also created a five-year program that allows inmates to work their way out of segregation.

Officials also began reviewing the files of those now held in segregation, returning half of the 382 inmates who were screened back to the general prison population. More than 4,500 inmates remain in security housing units.

But Assembly Public Safety Chairman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who has visited Pelican Bay, called the state's reforms "lip service" and said the protests are a "tangible tool" for change.

Officials have "had a bunker mentality for a long time," he said.

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