SALT LAKE CITY – A hunger strike at Utah State Prison reached its fourth day Monday, with prisoners refusing to eat in a protest against housing conditions and the placement of gang leaders.
Forty-two inmates were participating in the hunger strike that began Friday when they gave prison officials a list of demands that included moving gang leaders out of a maximum-security unit, said Utah Department of Corrections spokeswoman Brooke Adams.
All of the participating inmates are documented gang members, she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Utah wasn't involved with planning or organizing the strike but is backing the prisoners' right to a peaceful protest, said John Mejia, ACLU Utah legal director.
The ACLU recently received several dozen letters from inmates who are concerned they are spending too much time in confinement, don't have access to rehabilitative programs and aren't getting enough protein in their meals.
"We have had enough of these squalid living conditions and would like to be treated with respect and dignity, with the opportunity to better ourselves," wrote one unnamed prisoner, according to an ACLU news release.
Another prisoner said solitary conditions are taking a heavy psychological toll, causing paranoia and anxiety. The ACLU said inmates in a special threat group reported being locked in their cells with another person for 47 of 48 hours.
"We understand these prisoners have been determined to present a sort of special threat, but that does not mean the extreme isolation reported to us is justified," Mejia said. "When we hear from that many prisoners all at once, in such a short period of time, it really is an eye opener for us."
The prison doesn't agree with the way prisoners are characterizing the conditions.
Adams said officials have informed the inmates that they are in the process of reassessing how much time the inmates are allowed out of their cells. They have met with representatives from the ACLU, the Disability Law Center and the Utah Prison Advocate Network about the process and asked for their input.
The prison will continue to offer the inmates three meals a day but won't negotiate or react to demands, threats or intimidation from inmates, Adams said.
State law allows the prison to force feed inmates but that would require approval from a state judge for each inmate.
Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com