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Prison officials and inmate advocates discuss hunger strike

The Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison is used for long-term solitary confinement.
The Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison is used for long-term solitary confinement.
Julie Small/KPCC

California prison officials met Tuesday with advocates for inmates on the third week of a hunger strike. The action was taken to protest the long-term solitary confinement of thousands of inmates with ties to prison gangs.

Thirty thousand inmates joined the protest that began July 8. California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported Tuesday that the number has dropped to 851. 

Department spokesman Jeffrey Callison described the two-hour talks between inmate advocates and high-ranking CDCR officials as "informational" only.  "It is not a negotiating or mediating session," he said.

Carol Strickman, an attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, described the meeting with officials as “cordial but frustrating" because, "they would not acknowledge the urgency of the situation.”

The prisoners want CDCR to make more substantive changes to its policy for validating inmates as gang leaders or accomplices. Once validated, the department places them in Security Housing Units, or SHUs —a kind of prison-within-a-prison where inmates are confined to their cells up to 22 hours a day with little human contact.

California houses 4500 inmates in SHUs at Corcoran, Pelican Bay, Tehachapi, and Valley State Prison for Women.

Prison officials initiated changes to gang management policies last year that they say reduce long-term confinement in the SHU. They’ve created a way for inmates to earn their way to a less restrictive environment and they’ve changed the criteria needed to put someone in a SHU.

Since October last year, CDCR has also reviewed the files of over 382 inmates who were gang validated under the old rules.   208 have been transferred or approved for transfer to general population prison yards. 115 were placed in less restrictive conditions through the new step-down program. 

Prison officials estimated it will take three years to complete the reviews. 

But Strickman said the way prison officials chose to conduct them means inmates who’ve been in isolation the longest could have to wait six years for a reprieve.

“They don’t really have anything upon which to hope.” Strickman said.  “If large numbers of inmates were getting out, and they had some hope that their conditions might change, maybe they wouldn’t be starving themselves right now.”

Some isolated prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison who are leading the hunger strike say the state should adopt a more rigorous vetting process for gang validation. They also want CDCR to move any prisoners who’ve been in isolation longer than ten years to less restrictive housing.

Prison officials have denied KPCC’s request for updated statistics on how long they’ve held inmates in security housing units.  They said the matter is the subject of ongoing litigation.

In 2011 the department reported that at least 78 inmates at the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit had spent more than 20 years in isolation. Some of those inmates have joined a federal lawsuit that seeks to abolish prolonged solitary confinement.