State corrections officials yesterday threatened to discipline thousands of inmates who have resumed a hunger strike over conditions at California’s highest-security lockups.A state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation memo distributed to all state inmates (pdf) said any prisoner participating in the strike would receive disciplinary action “in accordance with the California Code of Regulations.”
The memo warned that inmates “identified as leading the disturbance will be subject to removal from general population and placed in an Administrative Segregation Unit.” The department also said it would consider removing canteen items from inmates' cells, including any food.
The memo did not explain what action the department would take against the main strike leaders, all of whom are already locked in a special section of Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit, which is at the heart of the protest.
As many as 5,000 inmates in California prisons, including Calipatria and Pelican Bay, have refused state-issued meals since Monday, according to advocacy groups and internal corrections department reporting. That followed an appeal from strike leaders that was posted on an advocacy website earlier this month.
Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton declined to offer specific numbers or locations, saying “thousands” of inmates had refused meals at “several” institutions. Thornton said the department will not formally treat the action as a hunger strike until inmates have refused nine consecutive meals.
The strikers are accusing officials of not following through on earlier promises to overhaul policies governing the Security Housing Units, where some prisoners, including several strike leaders, have spent decades locked in windowless cells.
Corrections officials say prisoners housed in the units are dangerous gang leaders who need to be segregated from the general prison population for security reasons. Officials also say they are moving forward with significant policy changes that were discussed with Pelican Bay inmates during the last hunger strike, which ended July 20.
A separate department memo also distributed to inmates yesterday outlined the new policies being developed by senior corrections staff, including “increased privileges based upon disciplinary free behavior, a step down process for SHU (Security Housing Unit) inmates, and a system that better defines and weighs necessary points in the (gang) validation process.” The memo warned that work on the new policies “may be delayed by large-scale inmate disturbances or other emergency circumstances.”
Prisoner-rights advocates expressed concern that the situation could escalate dramatically, as neither side appears open to compromise.
“There doesn’t seem to be any endgame,” said Donald Specter, director of the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office. “The prisoners distrust the Department of Corrections. And the Department of Corrections has no intention of doing more than they’ve previously announced.”
“I’m very concerned that prisoners may die or be seriously injured," Specter said. "I don’t see any way to come to a resolution, short of prisoners stopping the hunger strike or the department taking extraordinary measures to force-feed them.”
Medical staff are on alert and expected to begin monitoring the inmates' health conditions tomorrow.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers are asking the Office of the Inspector General to take action.
A Sept. 22 letter from state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, to Inspector General Robert Barton requested a review of the corrections department’s “response to the issues raised by the inmate hunger strike that ended in July of this year." The letter – formally issued by the Senate Rules Committee – asked that the review be completed within 30 days.