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.
Driving the strike are accused gang members who have spent years secluded in SHUs. There are currently about 3,600 prisoners housed in solitary confinement, a figure that includes inmates facing open-ended stays and those with fixed terms for specific offenses.
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 earlier this month.
Inmates and their allies cast the strike as a continuation of a pair of 2011 hunger strikes that also challenged California's solitary confinement policies.
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.
This time, leaders of the strike are projecting a determination and intensity that exceeds the previous strikes, according to Laura Magnani of the American Friends Service Committee.
"There's a level of desperation that is palpable," Magnani 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. Thornton said officials had been mulling changes before the initial 2011 hunger strike began.
"The claims the hunger strikers are making are the same they made two years ago, and yet the policies are vastly different," Thornton said.
Launched in November of 2012, the program changes the process by which prison officials select inmates for indefinite segregated housing. 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.
It also allows inmates in SHU units to 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.
As of June, 208 inmates in the units had either been transferred or approved for
Most Popular Stories
- American Airlines, US Airways Complete Merger
- ACA Delay Stresses Small Businesses
- Questions Remain in Jenni Rivera's Death
- Unemployed Wait as Lawmakers Debate
- Harley Issues Motorcycle Recall
- General Dynamics Plans 200 New Jobs in N.M.
- Auto Dealer Builds Big Solar Project
- Entrepreneurs' Next Creation May Be New Laws
- Saab Gets Back into the Game; U.S. Auto Sales Soar
- Dell Offers Undisclosed Number of Employee Buyouts