SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Nearly 30,000 of the 133,000 inmates in California prisons refused meals for the second day in support of inmates held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, corrections officials said Tuesday.
The meals were refused on Monday and Tuesday as inmates announced what they said would be the third extended hunger strike in two years protesting conditions for the more than 4,500 gang members, gang associates and serious offenders held in the security housing units. Many of those inmates are kept in solitary confinement, sometimes for decades.
The protest is the latest disruption for a prison system already facing legal and logistical challenges. Officials are struggling to move about 2,600 inmates from two Central Valley prisons because they are considered especially vulnerable to a potentially fatal airborne fungus. They also are appealing a separate court order requiring the state to release nearly 10,000 inmates by year's end to reduce prison crowding as the best way to improve conditions for sick and mentally ill inmates.
The isolation units that are the focus of the hunger strike are at Pelican Bay near the Oregon border and at three other maximum security prisons around the state.
Inmates refused breakfast and lunch at two-thirds of the state's 33 prisons and at all four private prisons that hold California inmates in other states, said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
She did not know how many inmates skipped dinners.
About 2,000 inmates statewide refused to go to their jobs or classes Tuesday, down slightly from the 2,300 who refused to participate on Monday. The number of inmates refusing meals also dropped slightly, from more than 30,000 on Monday to about 29,000 on Tuesday.
The number of participating inmates eclipsed two hunger strikes two years ago. Nearly 12,000 inmates missed at least some meals in October 2011, and nearly 7,000 declined meals in July 2011, though officials said most began eating again after several days.
Pelican Bay inmates said through advocacy groups that the protest began after talks with prison officials broke down last month over inmates' demands that the department end long-term solitary confinement.
Thornton said the department changed its policies last year to give gang associates a way out of the units. About half of the nearly 400 inmates considered so far have been or will be let out of solitary confinement, while another 115 are in a program in which they can work their way out of the units, Thornton said.
A federal judge in April refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by 10 Pelican Bay inmates alleging their living conditions in the isolation units are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.
Meanwhile, 12 inmates at High Desert State Prison near Susanville continued a separate hunger strike they began July 1 to protest conditions in the administrative segregation unit there. Twenty-three inmates initially refused meals at the prison 185 miles northeast of Sacramento, but about half have resumed eating, Thornton said.