Nearly 1,500 inmates at six California prisons have joined a hunger strike by prisoners confined in one of the state's harshest isolation units, prison officials said Friday.
The hunger strike began a week ago and was organized by prisoners confined in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, a maximum security facility located near the Oregon border. Inmates there are held in windowless isolation cells for more than 22 hours a day and can have little or no contact with other prisoners for years and even decades at a time.
A core group of prisoners at Pelican Bay said they were willing to starve to death rather than continue to submit to prison conditions that they call a violation of basic civil and human rights.
"No one wants to die," James Crawford, a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder and robbery, said in a statement provided by a coalition of prisoners' rights groups. "Yet under this current system of what amounts to intense torture, what choice do we have?"
The hunger strike comes only weeks after the Supreme Court ordered California to dramatically lower its prisons population, because severe overcrowding was exposing inmates to high levels of violence and disease.
California prison conditions were so poor as to be "intolerable with the concept of human dignity," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion.
The hunger strike is not a protest against overcrowding, however, but against the treatment of offenders who are segregated from the general population due to gang affiliations or crimes committed in prison.
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In June, the Pelican Bay inmates provided prison officials advance warning of their intent to begin a hunger strike and made six key demands, including that the prison reform its policies on long-term solitary confinement.
The prisoners cited a 2006 report by a group of attorneys and law enforcement professionals that determined long-term solitary confinement practiced in U.S. prisons can create "torturous conditions that are proven to cause mental deterioration."
State and federal courts have rejected prisoner lawsuits seeking to alter such policies, however. Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that prisoners in the Pelican Bay isolation unit were held there due to their known affiliation with prison gangs or for violent acts committed in prison.
"The purpose of the Security Housing Unit is to remove gang members' influence over other inmates and to keep our prisons safe," she said.
The prisoners also called for an end to a policy allowing indefinite detention in the isolation unit for inmates suspected of continued involvement in gang activity. Gang-affiliated prisoners can be released from the unit if they "debrief," or provide information on other gang members.
Those who choose not to "debrief" must serve a minimum of six years in the solitary unit and can be held there indefinitely if they engage in any activity that prison officials deem gang-related.