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Little recourse for attorney barred from visiting California prisoners during hunger strike

A bunk in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, CA. (August, 2011)
A bunk in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, CA. (August, 2011)
Rina Palta, KPCC

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Four California prisoners required medical treatment and a fifth was referred to a physician on the 11th day of a hunger strike to protest the long-term isolation of inmates, health care officials said Thursday.

About 30,000 inmates initially joined the protest, but the number has fallen to fewer than 1,500. That could be the result of a tougher approach being taken by the state since the last hunger strike two years ago.

Officials won’t divulge the location of strike leaders who have been relocated. They have confiscated food from the cells of some inmates who say they are striking and refuse to eat prison meals but still have purchase foods from the canteen. 

And in a written order this week, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation banned attorney Marilyn McMahon from visiting clients participating in the hunger strike. The department also took legal documents out of the cells of strike leaders who are a party to a lawsuit McMahon brought in federal court.

The move surprised Matt Guerrero with California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

“The right to an attorney is a constitutionally protected right.” he said, and Corrections would have to "show cause" to impinge on that right. 

"But taking away their legal paper work and denying their access to counsel doesn’t seem rationally related to stopping the hunger strike."

Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton says prison staff removed the legal documents during a cell search, and later returned them to inmates, unread:

"Any time any inmate violates any rule and is placed in an administrative segregation unit--the officers do search their property.   That is just a normal course of action."

Thornton says the department banned McMahon "temporarily" to investigate allegations that prison rules were violated. 

The written order from CDCR said the were looking into whether one of her legal assistants “presents a serious threat to security.” 

McMahon can appeal to prison officials, or take her complaint to court. By then, the hunger strike will likely be over.

Advocates for prisoners also claim that prison staff at Pelican Bay blasted cold air into the cells of the hunger strike leaders. But the agency tasked to monitor corrections can not initiate an investigation of that claim.  State leaders must request it.

"We have not been asked by the Governor, Senate Rules committee or the Assembly Speaker,"  says Renee Hansen with the Inspector General for Prisons. Inmates or their families could also file a confidential complaint with the Office of the Inspector General she said.

"We are monitoring the situation. We do have daily briefings with the department. We are looking for things that do fall under our monitoring function."

Corrections has banned media from the prisons during the hunger strike — as they did during the last one in 2011.

Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the department, said prisons can't divert staff to handle media visits during a mass disturbance.