Thousands join hunger strike over state's prison isolation units

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A demonstrator holds up a sign during a rally in front of the State Building in San Francisco on July 1, 2011 to support prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison. Inmates in an isolation unit at Pelican Bay State Prison are on a hunger strike to protest conditions that they describe as inhumane. Advocates say several dozen inmates in the Security Housing Unit declined to eat their morning meal on Friday. The unit holds about a third of the 3,100 inmates at the Northern California prison.

Hundreds of occupants of an isolation unit at the maximum security Pelican Bay State Prison have been refusing food provided by the state for days in order to protest conditions in units that isolate inmates from the general population. They've been joined by thousands of other inmates in the California prison system. The strike peaked over Fourth of July weekend with 6,600 inmates refusing to eat - the largest California prison hunger strike in over 10 years.

Inmates in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit — better known as "The SHU" — spend all but 90 minutes a day locked up in 6-by-10-foot cells. When an inmate does get an hour-and-a-half outside the cell, he spends it alone in a small concrete exercise yard with 30-foot-high walls.

Pelican Bay State Prison, located near the Oregon border, houses 1,000 of the state’s SHU inmates. Some of them are refusing to eat until the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation bans the use of “indefinite confinement” in the SHU, along with a debriefing policy they say forces inmates to falsely accuse others of crimes in order to be get out of the isolation unit.

Dolores Canales’ son John Martinez is in the Pelican Bay SHU. When she last heard from him, Canales said he was doing OK, but "he was not eating."

Canales says her son’s determined to end year after year of what she calls torturous conditions. "Before this happened he got rid of all his food in his cell ... so he wouldn’t be tempted with any food," she said.

The number of inmates who refused to eat peaked at 6,600 over the Fourth of July weekend — making it the largest prison hunger strike in California in over a decade. But by Tuesday, the number of hunger strikers dropped to 2,100 at nine prisons. Most are in Security Housing Units at Corcoran and the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, or in the high-security wings at Centinela and Calipatria.

Molly Porzig of Critical Resistance, one of the nonprofit groups supporting the prisoner hunger strike, says prisoners are fasting for different lengths of time.

"People are joining the strike for varying lengths of time. Some people can only fast for a few days but there is a large number of prisoners in the SHU in Pelican Bay who are doing this indefinitely," she said.

Once an inmate refuses nine meals in a row, the state requires medical staff at the prisons to closely monitor his health. If the inmate’s condition deteriorates, medical staff can transfer him to an outside hospital for care, but the inmate can refuse treatment. Some Pelican Bay prisoners who’ve been in isolation units for decades say they’re willing to die to end what they call cruel and inhumane conditions.

This story has been updated since it was originally published. Updates include changes to the number of inmates that participated or are participating in the strike.

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