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Prison hunger strike leaders moved to separate quarters

Hunger strike leaders have lost access to news and some legal papers have been seized. One lawyer for inmates has been temporarily barred from all prisons.

July 17, 2013|By Paige St. John
  • Inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison exercise in a yard. The leaders of a prison hunger strike have been moved to more isolated quarters and have lost access to news reports.
Inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison exercise in a yard. The leaders of a prison… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — California prison officials have moved 14 inmate leaders of a hunger strike over solitary confinement conditions to more isolated quarters, cutting off their access to broadcast news and seizing some of their legal papers, according to one of their lawyers.

Another inmates' lawyer was banned from all state prisons.

Wednesday was the 10th day of the statewide protest, with 2,327 inmates refusing their meals and 229 skipping their prison jobs and classes.

Inmates who have gone a week or more without food typically feel dizzy or weak, and since Friday, corrections officials have sent at least two by ambulance to a hospital for medical checks, said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the court-appointed overseer of prison healthcare in California.

Her office has had no reports of more serious medical complications, she said.

Prison officials said they do not plan physician checkups for most protesters until they have refused meals for 17 days.

Mark Morocco, professor of emergency medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said that after about a week of fasting, people usually exhaust the body's supply of glucose, which provides energy. Then the body starts to eat through fat reserves and, eventually, muscle.

"Even if you don't eat, your body is going to eat," he said. "It eats itself."

An attorney for inmates in the main solitary unit at Pelican Bay said Wednesday that her team had arrived there to find their clients had been moved to a separate building, with no access to television or radio. The relocation also cuts them off from the ad hoc communications network inmates have created in the main prison building.

Prison investigators took legal papers from some of the transferred inmates, said Anne Weills, an Oakland civil rights lawyer representing prisoners in a federal lawsuit over long-term solitary confinement. The documents included potential settlement terms that inmates had drawn up for a July 26 court appearance.

State officials confirmed that some protest leaders were moved but refused to identify the prison where they were located. All of the 14 strike leaders were signatories of protest-related documents, including a manifesto calling for unity among prison ethnic groups against the corrections system.

Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said any materials taken from inmates were returned unread. She also said protesters had been warned that the hunger strike would bring consequences: "They should allow their lawsuit to take its course and not be protesting."

Laura Magnani, a member of the San Francisco office of the American Friends Service Committee, said the more isolated the inmates are, "the more difficult it is to open up communication" between the state and the prisoners' advocates.

Magnani, who was on the mediation team that helped end similar protests two years ago, said that she has been in weekly contact with corrections officials, but that the officials have expressed no willingness to open discussions about the current strike.

"We're in a wait-and-see mode," she said.

Meanwhile, another lawyer who was part of the mediation team said Wednesday that she had been temporarily banned from California prisons.

A form letter, sent to attorney Marilyn McMahon on Tuesday and signed by corrections Undersecretary Martin Hoshino, says her access to inmates is cut off. McMahon heads the advocacy group California Prison Focus. The letter cites a pending investigation into an unspecified threat created by one of the organization's volunteers, who McMahon said last visited Pelican Bay inmates in May.

McMahon asserted that her exclusion is intended to sever the link between protesting inmates and their advocates. "I'm a target because I do help them communicate with the outside world."

McMahon, whose group is pressing for an end to solitary confinement in California, and another prisoner-rights lawyer were similarly benched during hunger strikes in 2011. The ban was lifted months later with no findings of wrongdoing.

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

Times staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.

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