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California prisoner's hunger strikes protesting inhumane treatment at Pelican Bay

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 19th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

For some California prison inmates involved with criminal gangs, cells of seven-and-a-half-by-12-foot with no windows, no roommates coupled without an idea on how many years they'll remain in isolation await them at Pelican Bay. The futuristic prison is now being denounced as inhumane, with prisoners staging hunger strikes.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Almost 30,000 prisoners across California began refusing meals on July 8 in protest. About 2,300 inmates have since held out, 11 days later.

The hunger strike, the third in two years, is the latest hurdle for the troubled California prison system. The state is under court order to release 10,000 inmates this year to ease overcrowding.

The prisoners are demanding an end to indefinite stays in so-called "Security Housing Units," forbidding cells where some inmates are isolated for as much as 23 hours a day.

"They've committed a crime, and they are willing to accept punishment," Jules Lobel, a lawyer challenging the California system in federal court says. "But this is so far out of the ordinary that they consider it a form of torture, and I think that's correct."

Described by former inmates as living tombs, state prison officials point out that each has cable TV with as many as 27 channels and that prisoners are allowed visitors, even chessboards.

Prisoners get finite terms in the isolation units for breaking prison rules. But if they are deemed to be a member of a prison gang or associated with one, they can be put in confinement indefinitely.

Prison advocates say that the accusations of gang affiliation are based on an extremely broad definition. Challenging them they claim is almost impossible. Sometimes, the only way out is to snitch on other gang members.

"If you're exercising with someone who's in a gang, that's enough," Carol Strickman, a lawyer at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children who has worked with the strikers says. "And you say, wait a minute, I was doing pushups - it doesn't matter."

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Terry Thornton pointed to the reforms in place last year has raised the bar for some inmates to be sent to the isolation units.

New provisions also allow inmates to demonstrate their commitment to refraining from gang activity in ways other than snitching on other inmates, she said.

"They can earn their way out without even dropping out of their gang," she said.

Participation in the hunger strike has dropped to about 2,300 inmates from 12,000 on July 11 when state started keeping count. The state considers prisoners on hunger strike after they have missed nine meals in a row.

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