Calif. inmates end hunger strike after 2 months

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California inmates on Thursday ended a nearly two-month hunger strike to protest policies that can keep some gang leaders isolated for decades, after lawmakers agreed to hold hearings on complaints about the treatment.

More than 30,000 inmates had been refusing meals when the strike began in early July. By this week the number had dwindled to 100, including 40 who had been on strike continuously since July 8.

The strike ended after two Democratic state legislators promised to hold hearings this fall on inmates’ complaints that gang leaders are held in isolation units for long periods. Three of the four strike leaders have been kept that way for more than 20 years and the fourth for more than a decade.

A federal judge had given authorities permission to force-feed inmates if necessary to save their lives, but officials did not have to resort to that measure. Even hard-core strikers had been accepting vitamins and electrolyte drinks during their fast.

It did not appear that any inmates suffered serious health problems such as kidney or eye damage that can result from starvation, said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the federal court-appointed official who oversees prison medical care.

The focus now will be on easing inmates back to solid food, she said.

“We are pleased this dangerous strike has been called off before any inmates became seriously ill,” Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said in a statement.

He said the department will continue to carry out changes it began two years ago in its policies over sending inmates to Security Housing Units, isolation units designed to discipline inmates who commit crimes in prison or keep gang leaders from easily communicating with their followers.

The changes include more limits on which inmates are sent to the units at Pelican Bay, where the strike began, and at other prisons. The policies also make it easier for inmates also can work their way out of the isolation units.

Jules Lobel, an attorney representing 10 striking inmates in a federal lawsuit over the isolation units, did not immediately return a telephone message.

Supporters and advocates for the inmates planned a rally later in the day at a California state building in downtown Oakland.

The coalition did not immediately confirm that the strike had ended but in a statement cited a positive response to the inmates’ demands, including the pending hearings scheduled by the heads of the state Senate and Assembly public safety committees.

“I’m relieved to see an honorable end to the hunger strike without getting to the point where people were dying,” Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said in a statement.

He said he was gratified that the hearings he plans with Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, helped prompt an end to the strike. He said lawmakers’ real work begins now as they prepare for hearings “that I hope can bring an end to the disgraceful conditions that triggered the hunger strike.”

Hancock said in a statement that “The issues raised by the hunger strike are real — concerns about the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California’s prisons — and can no longer be ignored.”

Claude Marks, a spokesman for the coalition, would not comment until the advocates released a statement from the strike leaders at the rally.

About 3,600 inmates are housed in the isolation units because of crimes they committed in prison or they have been validated as leaders of prison gangs.

The four organizers of the hunger strike all are serving life sentences for murder, have committed a string of assaults while incarcerated, and lead rival prison gangs, officials have said.

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