California: Some inmates continue prison hunger strike, advocates say

By Mary Slosson

LOS ANGELES | Fri Oct 14, 2011

(Reuters) – A day after California prison officials declared a 3-week-old hunger strike by thousands of convicts over, an inmate advocacy group said on Friday that at least 150 prisoners were still refusing to eat.

The protest began at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California and spread to at least 4,000 inmates in seven other facilities at its height late last month, with prisoners demanding an end to what they called inhumane treatment.

Many of the grievances focused on the prison system’s use of solitary confinement to enforce discipline and for what inmates say is a means of coercing them to “rat out” prison gang members.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced on Thursday the hunger strike had ended after prison officials agreed to review procedures by which certain convicts are classified as too dangerous for the general inmate population.

But inmate representatives later said that as of Friday 150 convicts were continuing their protest at two prisons because conditions in which they are held remained unaddressed.

“We know that there are people still going at Calipatria (State Prison) and Salinas Valley (State Prison),” said Isaac Ontiveros, a spokesman for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. “They have been clear that they are willing to keep going at great peril to their own health.”

Corrections Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton denied this was true.

“The mass hunger strike ended yesterday,” she said, adding that Calipatria’s group gave up its protest by Wednesday. But she acknowledged that four Pelican Bay inmates were still refusing to eat because they did not believe the strike was over.

The weeks of tension coincided with California’s implementation of a state-mandated plan to ease prison overcrowding by shifting responsibility for thousands of inmates and ex-convicts to county authorities.

An earlier round of protests originated at Pelican Bay in July and ended a few weeks later after corrections officials promised concessions. But the hunger strike resumed on September 26 and later spread to other prisons throughout the state.

At its peak, prison officials counted more than 4,200 inmates as participants, though prisoner rights groups said that as many as 12,000 convicts had at some point joined in refusing food.

Inmates were pressing a list of five demands — an end to group punishments; an end to a “debriefing” policy that requires an inmate to identify fellow gang members in exchange for getting out of solitary confinement; an end to long-term solitary confinement; adequate and nutritious food; and greater privileges for prisoners confined to isolation indefinitely.

“If you’re in the SHU (secure housing unit), there’s an unwritten rule that the only ways you can get out are to make parole, debrief, or die,” said Carol Strickman, an attorney for the group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, which helped broker a deal to end the protests. “They want you to give it up … to name names, rat out people.”

Prison officials aim to modify their “secure housing unit admissions” policy by early 2012, Thornton said.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)

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