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.
Prison officials in California Thursday confirmed that more than 4,000 inmates have been on a hunger strike since Monday.
It’s the second time this year that inmates have refused food to protest the prison system’s use Security Housing Units — known as “the SHU” — to control prison gangs.
Each day, inmates in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border get 15 minutes to shower, and a little over an hour to exercise in a concrete yard.
They spend the rest of the day — nearly 23 hours — locked in their cells. No phone calls. No physical contact with visitors. The Department of Corrections says the SHU was designed to punish and control inmates that run prison gangs. Inmates say it’s a form of torture to coerce them to “rat” on other prisoners so they can get out of the SHU. To protest, about 6,000 inmates at Pelican Bay and elsewhere refused meals in July. Their hunger strike ended after three weeks when prison officials agreed to change in SHU policies. But now, hunger strike leaders say Corrections has dropped the ball.
"Everything we said we’d do, we’d done and now they’re striking and I don’t know why," says Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate.
Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate says his department delivered on promises to supply inmates in the SHU with exercise equipment inmates, warmer winter clothing, art supplies and proctors for exams. He says Corrections is also considering plans to revise policies on gang management, as promised. Cate says he plans to isolate the leaders of this latest hunger strike and write up all inmates who participate.
"My plan today is everybody who disrupts our prisons will get a disciplinary sanction," he says.
Since Monday, inmates at eight prisons have joined the hunger strike. Most of those who refused food this week are housed in prisons with security housing units or administrative segregation units. They’re less isolated but still restrictive, and they’re meant for inmates that violate prison rules.