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California prison officials deny media access to hunger strikers

A watchtower rises above the maximum security complex at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City.
A watchtower rises above the maximum security complex at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City.
Ben Margot/AP

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Roughly 1,000 inmates in California’s prisons were still on a hunger strike Sunday to protest long-term isolation of inmates believed to have ties to prison gangs.

The mass protest, which is in its third week, has drawn international attention, but prison officials won't allow reporters in to cover the strike.

California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation denied KPCC’s request to tour any of the four Security Housing Units in the state, where inmates spend up to 22 hours a day in their cells.

“There are a lot of staffing resources being used to manage this mass hunger strike and maintain the safety and security of our institutions,” said spokeswoman Terry Thornton. “When this is concluded we can resume having reporters visits our institutions.” 

Corrections enforced the same policy during hunger strikes in 2011.

Officials refused KPCC’s requests to visit the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay in July of that year. After the hunger strike ended, the department allowed journalists in to an adjacent unit at the prison where inmates transition out of isolation.  Media were not allowed to speak with the hunger strike leaders in the isolation cells — the so-called “short corridor” —  at Pelican Bay.

“They just seem so paranoid to let any information out about what’s going on,” said Jim Ewert with the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

Ewert argues that without independent reporting on the hunger strike, the public has no way to judge whether the long-term isolation of inmates is an effective use of billions of taxpayer dollars.

“I’m not saying the public should side one way or the other," Ewert said, "but at least people can make an informed decision about whether the protesters have a legitimate beef or not.  But right now, the public can’t.”

Prison officials have also denied KPCC’s request for updated statistics on how long they’ve held 4,500 inmates in security housing units.  They said the matter is the subject of ongoing litigation.

In 2011 the department reported that at least 78 inmates at the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit had spent more than 20 years in isolation.  Some of those inmates have joined a federal lawsuit that seeks to abolish prolonged solitary confinement.

Media had greater access to California prisons before 1996, when journalists could request interviews with specific inmates. Now they must get an inmate’s permission to visit them.  The process is time-consuming and reporters can't record the visits.  The only other way to speak with inmates is on a media tour with corrections staff, where reporters have only random encounters with prisoners. 

The state legislature passed AB1270 last year to expand media access to prisons, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill.