Calif. Lawmakers Promise Hearings, Call for End to Prison Hunger Strike

PHOTO: Prisoners walk a lap in a recreation yard at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, California. Noah Berger/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Prisoners walk a lap in a recreation yard at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, California.

As a hunger strike across California prisons enters a third month, two state legislators are vowing to hold hearings to address inmates' complaints and break a stalemate with prison officials.

"The issues raised by the hunger strike are real – concerns about the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California’s prisons – are real and can no longer be ignored,” Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) said in a joint statement.

"The Courts have made clear that the hunger strikers have legitimate issues of policy and practice that must be reviewed," Ammiano added. "We cannot sit by and watch our state pour money into a system that the U.S. Supreme Court has declared does not provide constitutionally acceptable conditions of confinement,” Ammiano went on to say.

The two legislators, who chair the Senate and Assembly Committees on Public Safety, said they will review conditions in California’s maximum security prisons and the effects of long-term solitary confinement.

Forty-one inmates have refused food since the hunger strike began on July 8th, prison officials said on Friday. In total, 123 inmates have refused food for at least nine consecutive meals. Approximately 30,000 prisoners participated in the hunger strike when it started.

Fifteen prisoners on hunger strike have lost potentially dangerous amounts of weight, a spokeswoman for the official who oversees health care in the 34-prison system told Reuters on Friday.

The hunger strikers' main concerns revolve around indefinite solitary confinement in what the state calls security housing units (SHUs). The United Nations has declared any solitary detention longer than 15 days is considered human torture; California prisons have held some prisoners in the SHU for close to three decades.

“I fear there is very little time left to resolve the hunger strike before death or irreparable injury to the prisoners occurs,” said Carol Strickman, a member of the prisoners’ mediation team.

“The Mediation Team has been pressing California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to engage in serious discussions about SHU conditions and procedures. We began this effort back in February and have little to show for it,” Strickman went on to say in the statement posted on the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group's website.

Strickman says conversations with CDCR have been cordial but CDCR’s “willingness to implement serious and substantive change is lacking. Recently, their position seems to have hardened.”

California prison officials say the prisoners’ demands have either already been addressed, are fiscally irresponsible or are just non-negotiable. Last week a federal judge gave the state prison system permission to force-feed some inmates who are participating in the hunger strike.

In their statement, Hancock and Ammiano called on the hunger strikers to end their protest.

"The inmates participating in the hunger strike have succeeded in bringing these issues to the center of public discussion and debate,” they said. “Legislators recognize the core concerns raised by the inmates and their supporters, and need no further sacrifice or risk of human life.”

They anticipate that legislative hearings may begin as early as this fall and continue into next year.