Hunger Strike of 30K Calif. Prisoners Could Last For Weeks

Close to 30,000 inmates are hunger striking in California prisons over solitary conditions.

(Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

A recreation yard at the Folsom Women's Facility in Folsom, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013.

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Nearly 30,000 inmates in California prisons refused meals for the second day Tuesday in protest of solitary confinement conditions for inmates at Pelican Bay and Corcoran state prisons, according to corrections officials.

Both are maximum security prisons, which are reserved for the most dangerous and violent criminals who have committed crimes such as murder, kidnapping or robbery.

Officials do not yet have numbers on Wednesday's protests, but advocates say the strike - the third of its kind in two years - was planned far in advance and could go for weeks. Talks between inmates and corrections officials over changes to solitary confinement conditions broke down last month.

"It's fundamentally light years different than what happened in 2011 with the first round of strikes. There is so much more support this time," says Denise Mewbourne at the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. "People are saying: 'I'm willing to die,' because the conditions they are living in are so bad."

Nearly 5,000 of the total 130,000 inmates in the California prison system are in solitary confinement units known as Security Housing Units, or SHUs – small cells in which they are confined for at least 22 hours a day, often without windows and almost always without contact with the outside world. Many are placed in the SHUs indefinitely.

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Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, says the state doesn't consider SHUs as complete solitary confinement because inmates communicate with one another and with staff through doors, and because they have cable television.

But California inmates have increasingly protested conditions within the SHU as deeply inhumane, and in March 2012, 400 California inmates in solitary confinement petitioned the United Nations to intervene, calling SHUs a "living coffin."

"I have seen fellow prisoners murdered by correctional officers, mentally ill prisoners abused, I have seen men psychologically break down, cry, scream and go insane," Alfred Sandoval, who is in Pelican Bay on convictions of four murders and one attempted murder, wrote in the petition. He says he has been housed in the SHU there since July 1987. "The SHU is a soul-sucking, mind-bending torture that murders all humanity in any human being. Some die quicker than others... but we all die inside."

According to a 2012 report by Amnesty International on California's supermax units, California's prison system sees 34 suicides a year – nearly half of them by prisoners inside the SHU.

In March 2013, a forensic psychiatrist appointed 14 years ago by the federal court to help California prisons lower its suicide rate said he was giving up because his recommendations were not heeded by the state year after year.

In response, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it had "one of the most robust prison suicide prevention programs in the nation."

And yet California's prison system has continued to be plagued by reports on a range of problems - from inhumane treatment of prisoners by guards to rising STD rates and a high numbers of suicides.

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At the heart of all is one problem according to advocates: overcrowding. "The SHU is only one piece in the puzzle that is California corrections," says Hadar Aviram, a professor of law at University of California, Hastings College of the Law. "For many years, [the California prison system] was at 200 percent capacity. People were packed like sardines. The conditions were truly atrocious."

In 2010, the Supreme Court responded to the problem by declaring California's prisons unconstitutionally overcrowded. Since then, overcrowding has lessened somewhat, with some inmates shifted from prisons to local jails. The prison system is now at 150 percent of capacity, according to the state.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sees the overcrowding problem and the high SHU population as not coincidental.