CA inmate dies in solitary cell amid hunger strike

Prisoner Hunger Strike

Paul Sakuma/AP

Demonstrators hold up a sign during a rally in front of the State Building in San Francisco, Friday, 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 again in 2013 to protest conditions that they describe as inhumane.

A California inmate has died in solitary confinement amid a system-wide hunger strike protesting living conditions in those cells.

Prison officials said they are investigating the death Monday of Billy Sell as a possible suicide. They are awaiting the Kings County coroner's report before making a final determination on the cause of death.

The Kings County coroner didn't return a phone call Saturday.

Inmate supporters and prison officials disagree over whether the 32-year-old Sell was participating in the strike. Prison officials said he wasn't. Activists supporting the hunger strike from outside prison say otherwise.

The hunger strike began July 8 when 30,000 inmates refused their morning meal to protest the use of isolation cells, known as Security Housing Units, as a way to break the power of prison gangs. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has confined hundreds of inmates in those units indefinitely, many for more than five years and dozens for more than two decades.

The number of protestors has dwindled since the hunger strike began, but about 1,000 inmates at 11 prisons are still participating.

Sell was serving a life sentence for attempted murder. He was awaiting trial for the murder of a cell mate.

With contributions by Associated Press reporter Paul Elias

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