Yolanda Santoya from the Los Angeles dance group La Cuauhtemoc performs… (GARY KAZANJIAN / EPA )
A state prison inmate who had participated in the statewide hunger strike has died, apparently by hanging himself in his isolation cell, state corrections officials said Saturday.
The death of the 32-year-old man occurred Monday in the segregation unit at California State Prison near Corcoran, but was not confirmed by state corrections officials until after The Times learned of it from inmate advocacy groups. Conditions in those isolation units are the core focus of a hunger strike that began July 8 and is now in its 20th day with 601 inmates continuing to refuse meals.
State officials refused Saturday to name the prisoner because they said they could not verify that his family members had been contacted. Spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the man was found unresponsive in his cell, and pronounced dead in the prison's hospital. She said he was serving a double-life sentence from Solano County for attempted first-degree murder and was pending trial for the murder of his cellmate in 2007, also at Corcoran.
The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, representing a number of inmate advocacy organizations, identified the inmate as Billy "Guero" Sell.
A spokeswoman for the court-appointed agency that runs prison healthcare services, Joyce Hayhoe, said the man "may have been originally on the hunger strike and then went off."
No mention of the death was included in medical reports the receiver's office has provided during the strike. Hayhoe said it did not appear the inmate remained part of the hunger strike protest at that time.
The death also was not reported to advocates for protesting prisoners who met with top corrections officials Tuesday, the lead mediator for that group said. Laura Magnani, with American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco, said other prisoners said the inmate had unsuccessfully sought medical attention before his death.
"This is extremely disturbing news, not only because someone is dead, but because he had tried to get medical help and had been on hunger strike," Magnani said. "The complacency of the department about the seriousness of the prisoners’ commitment, and the prisoners’ desperation about their plight is shocking."
The lead lawyer for California prisoners in the federal case over prison mental health care and suicides said his office had been notified of the death. Michael Bien said the inmate did not appear to have received mental health services while in prison. Bien already is asking a federal judge to order California to screen prisoners held in isolation for mental illness, and to exclude the mentally ill from those units.
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