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Supporters of inmates on hunger strike urge Jerry Brown to act

July 30, 2013|By Melanie Mason
  • Supporters of inmates involved in the hunger strike bow their heads in a moment of prayer outside the state Capitol.
Supporters of inmates involved in the hunger strike bow their heads in a… (Melanie Mason / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — Supporters of California prison inmates on a weeks-long mass hunger strike convened on the Capitol Tuesday morning to urge Gov. Jerry Brown to take a more active role in resolving the protest.

Around 50 people gathered on the Capitol's south lawn to show support for the inmates on strike and call for changes to policies regarding solitary confinement. Three organizers then delivered petitions with more than 70,000 signatures to the governor's office.

Dolores Canales, co-founder of the California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, broke into tears after presenting the signatures to a member of the governor's staff. 

"These prisoners are so committed to the cause that they would put their own bodies through such suffering and be now on the 23rd day of the hunger strike. It's because the message is of suffering. The message is of torment," said Canales, whose son John Martinez has been incarcerated at the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU) for 18 years.

Ronald Ahnen, president of the inmates' rights group California Prison Focus, said the duration of the strike has entered "dangerous territory."

"I have grave concern about the health of the hunger strikers," Ahnen said. "It's time for the governor to step in and put an end to this hunger strike by starting to negotiate with the prisoners."

The demonstrators later marched to the state corrections department headquarters, just under a mile away.

The strike began July 8, as inmates objected to conditions in isolation units and prison gang policies. The corrections department said that as of Monday afternoon, 561 inmates in nine state prisons were considered to be on strike, meaning they have missed nine or more consecutive meals.

At its peak, more than 12,000 inmates were participating in the hunger strike. 385 prisoners have been on strike continuously since it began.

Amber Bernal, 32, said she drove up from San Diego to protest in solidarity with her brother. Ruben Bernal, 37 is an inmate at Pelican Bay SHU, the same isolation unit that houses the organizers of the strike.

Bernal said she and other family members of inmates involved in the strike have become a tight-knit group in their advocacy for their loved ones.

"It's not about the crimes they've done. They're paying the price for their crime already," she said. "We just ask they be treated like human beings. No matter how you slice and dice it, solitary confinement is torture."

Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, said the agency "has taken thoughtful steps over the past two years to improve Security Housing Units because these units serve a vital role in state prisons, keeping staff and other inmates safe from the same violent gangs leading the hunger strike and terrorizing communities across California."

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melanie.mason@latimes.com

Twitter: @melmason

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