California inmates on hunger strike to protest prolonged solitary confinement

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Severed from the rest of the world, California inmates in solitary confinement are once again hoping to starve their way to change.

For the third time in two years, prisoners who decry solitary confinement as a human rights violation have embarked on a hunger strike. They are clashing with corrections officials who call prolonged isolation a necessary tool to fight violent gangs that disrupt prisons and intimidate other inmates.

"Conditions have worsened" since the first two strikes, said Kamau Walton, a spokeswoman for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, and this time, barring some changes, "the prisoners are not going to be putting an end to it." 

At issue is the widespread use of "segregated housing units," or SHUs: tiny, windowless cells used to wall off some inmates -- including those who have committed offenses in prison, like murdering other inmates, and those who belong to prison gangs -- from the other prisoners.

There are currently about 3,600 California prisoners housed in solitary confinement, a figure that includes inmates facing open-ended stays and those with fixed terms for specific offenses

Accused gang members who have spent years secluded in SHUs are driving the current strike.

As of Friday afternoon, the number of inmates refusing food had dwindled to 1,235 across 14 state prisons, down from more than 12,000 when the protest began.

Inmates and their allies cast the strike as a continuation of a pair of 2011 hunger strikes. Those strikers relented so the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation could make promised changes. Inmates did win some concessions, like being allowed to have winter caps and send annual photos of themselves to family members.

But a lack of progress on the broader solitary confinement framework has led prisoners to resume the protest, Walton said.

"CDCR said they would re-evaluate the processes, and, whether or not they did, nothing has changed," she said.

Officials reject the notion that nothing has changed. Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for CDCR, pointed to a two-year pilot program to change the rules around solitary confinement.

"The claims the hunger strikers are making are the same they made two years ago, and yet the policies are vastly different," Thornton said.

Prisoners are now assigned to the units if their gang affiliation is proved through a points-based system that takes into account evidence like tattoos, reading material, talking to other gang members or a conviction stemming from gang-related behavior. 

Inmates in SHU units can now enroll in an incremental "step-down" program. That process can take up to four years, a reduction from what has been a minimum six-year stay.

Thornton said officials intend to review the status of every gang-identified inmate serving an indefinite term.

For prisoners and their allies, it isn't enough. 

"They haven't changed the fact that men can still live in isolation for decades on end without any hope of getting out," said Charles Carbone, a prisoners rights attorney who litigates gang validation cases.

The strike has drawn gestures of support from lawmakers. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, chairman of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, earlier this year convened a hearing on solitary confinement. He issued a statement "urging prison officials to make more progress in establishing fair and humane policies."

"This is not always a population people want to defend," Ammiano told The Bee. "There's some egregious things people have done. But this is not using a scalpel, so to speak, it's using a machete to mete out justice."

The Center for Constitutional Rights has also filed a lawsuit on behalf of 10 inmates confined to SHUs at Pelican Bay State Prison maintaining that the current policies constitute cruel and unusual punishment and deprive inmates of due process. Between them, the inmates named as plaintiffs have spent more than 200 years in solitary confinement.

In August, a district court judge will consider a request to expand the challenge to a class-action lawsuit on behalf of other prisoners inhabiting SHUs.

(Contact Jeremy B. White of the Sacramento Bee at jwhite@sacbee.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

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