California prisoners to renew hunger strike

The "Secure Housing Unit" at Pelican Bay State Prison.
Julie Small/KPCC

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Prisoners at two California prisons have announced plans to renew a hunger strike Monday to protest conditions in maximum-security units.

The group Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity said Friday that prisoners at Pelican Bay and Calipatria prisons plan to demonstrate by refusing their meals until their concerns are noticed.

Strike leaders say the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation didn't follow through on promises made to end a three-week hunger strike involving 6,600 inmates in July.

Isaac Ontiveros, an advocate for inmate rights, says hunger strike leaders took prison officials at their word.
"What they understood was that the CDCR was going to deal with some changes immediately," Ontiveros said. "And then start to deal with it on structural level in the coming months. And they saw a lot of those immediate changes taken back."

In July, hunger strikers protested conditions in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit, better known as the "SHU." Inmates there spend nearly 23 hours a day in their cells with a little over an hour in a concrete exercise yard. They want prison officials to stop keeping inmates in the SHU indefinitely if they’re believed to be high-ranking gang members or affiliates.  

In July, prison officials agreed to review their SHU policy, and consented to allow SHU inmates warmer winter clothing, drawing supplies and education courses.

Inmates were allowed to buy sweat suits for cold weather - but they had to purchase them from Corrections for $60 each.  They were also allowed to take classes, if they could pay for them. Ontiveros says most inmates in the SHU can’t afford either.

The strikers allege that long-term solitary confinement at Pelican Bay in Del Norte County is inhumane and dangerous. Calipatria prisoners have similar complaints about conditions in administrative segregation units at the Imperial County facility. Inmates at Pelican Bay also say prison staff members have retaliated against them with violence and disciplinary write-ups.
“I think that, mixed with the level of repression, the retaliation and clamping down, the write-ups, prisoners said ‘You know what? This is going nowhere',” said Ontiveros.

Prison officials insist they’ve kept their promises and warn that they’ll treat a second hunger strike as a “mass disturbance” and order disciplinary action against any inmate who participates.

Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the department has taken no disciplinary action against inmates that joined the July hunger strike.
"They’re getting those things we said they would get," said Thornton. "We’re looking at the things we said we would look at. We’re on track with our gang and SHU management policy review and proposed changes. I don’t know what else I can tell you."

Thornton says the Department of Corrections documented which inmates joined the hunger strike in June. That could be used against inmates if they join a second hunger strike. Thornton added the hunger strike in July cost Corrections $160 thousand and disrupted prison operations for weeks.