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.
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."
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.
"Corrections officials in California expand the use of solitary because they cannot keep an eye on some of these guys in general population because they are simply charged with overseeing too many guys," Will Matthews, a spokesman for the ACLU of Northern California, wrote in an email to U.S. News.
Callison at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says there is "no connection whatsoever" between overcrowding and the SHU population, and that the number of people put in solitary units is dependent on how many inmates the state deems a danger to others.
"People are in the SHU for two possible reasons. They commit a crime within the prison system, like a murder, and they can get a determinate sentence," he says. "Or you can also go to the SHU and can get an indeterminate sentence because of a gang 'validation.'"
The state validates an inmate as a member of a gang based on a number of factors. Aviram at UC Hastings says the complicated validation process is part of the hunger strikers' concerns.
"The process to verify is very sketchy, based on things like tattoos or reports from other people," says Aviram. "There are some 1500 [supposed gang] organizations by which you can land in solitary. That is a huge problem from the perspective of the inmates."
The California corrections system says it has made a concerted effort to address these issues in recent years. In October, it launched a pilot program that seeks to provide more clarity to inmates about what will put them in the SHU, and what will get them out.
"The program basically changes the way people are validated about whether or not they are a member of a gang. And it gives them a clearer path to get out of the SHU based on behaviors," says Callison.
More than 200 inmates have been selected for transfer or already transferred to general population as part of the program, according to Callison.
But advocates say the program does little to address inmates concerns about the SHUs, and Mewbourne at Legal Services for Prisoners says she sees "very little difference" between the old and new ways of validating gang members.
That frustration is the basis of this week's hunger strike, which is seeing nearly three times the number of participants as the strikes of 2011 did. And the protests are expected to continue until officials start handing out punishments.
"There are disciplinary procedures for people who violate rules, and people who are leading a mass disturbance," says Callison. "But we're not at that point yet."
A hunger strike is not officially declared by the California prison system until an inmate refuses nine consecutive meals; that could come as early as Wednesday night.