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DANNY WOOD, FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: In California, prison inmates are in the twelfth day of a hunger strike. Prisoners in the isolation wing of the high-security Pelican Bay jail are refusing meals and water to protest what they say are inhumane conditions. The strike has spread to at least six other prisons. Tina Bachemin reports.
TINA BACHEMIN, FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: More than 1,000 prisoners started the hunger strike on July 1 at Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit, known as the SHU. About 200 continue the hunger strike. Many of the prisoners have preexisting medical conditions, and activists say the health of some is deteriorating to critical levels. Linda Evans is an organizer with All Or None, an advocacy group for formerly incarcerated individuals. At a press conference, she read part of a letter from a nurse who works in the prison’s Security Housing Unit.
LINDA EVANS, ORGANIZER, ALL OF US OR NONE: They are not drinking water and have decompensated rapidly. Some are in renal failure and have been unable to make urine. Some are having measured blood sugars in the 30 range, which can be fatal if not treated. They’ve refused concentrated sugar packs and Ensure. The staff has taken them to the clinic and given them intravenous glucose when allowed by the prisoners, but most will not accept this medical support.
BACHEMIN: In a statement, one prisoner said this form of peaceful protest was their only option to change conditions, and that a core group was, quote, “committed to taking this all the way to the death if necessary.” California prisons spokesperson Terry Thornton said they are providing the hunger strikers with medical care.
TERRY THORNTON, SPOKESPERSON, CALIFORNIA DEPT. CORRECTIONS AND REHABILITATION: We have had just a handful of inmates who’ve had to receive some hydration therapy because they were dehydrated. At this point there are no incidents or medical occurrences of inmates in distress.
BACHEMIN: California’s prison system has a long history of problems. Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding constituted cruel and unusual punishment. A ruling in 2001 described the prison’s medical system as broken beyond repair and also in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Again, Linda Evans:
EVANS: Well, the prison medical staff never believes the prisoners, you know, none of the administrative staff, medical staff. They always feel like people are pretending or faking. And, you know, the medical care at Pelican Bay is just absolutely atrocious.
BACHEMIN: Prisoners also want an end to Pelican Bay’s debriefing policy. They say prison administration uses the debriefing policy to force them to name themselves or others as gang members, and they use access to food, medication, or further isolation in the SHU as a threat. They also want an end to 23 hour a day isolation in windowless, soundproof cells. Carol Strickman is staff attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and a legal representative of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Coalition. She says they’re pressing for dialog with prison officials.
CAROL STRICKMAN, STAFF ATTORNEY, LEGAL SERVICES FOR PRISONERS WITH CHILDREN: I think the mediation team that we’ve put together would concur that there have been no negotiations. There have been conversations. The mediation team would like to get it off conversations and into negotiations as rapidly as possible. We don’t know whether or not that’s going to be possible.
BACHEMIN: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation administrators say they’re not willing to negotiate. But spokesperson Thornton claims they are in dialog with the hunger strikers.
THORNTON: We have sent management teams to Pelican Bay State Prison. They, you know, talk to the inmates. Actually, the inmates didn’t have a whole lot to say to them, unfortunately. We have our ombudsman’s office who’s maintaining dialog. We have chaplains. We have custody staff, medical staff. Wardens are making rounds as well, speaking with the inmates. They have been much dialog [sic].
BACHEMIN: Advocates say prisoners have submitted formal complaints to the warden, Governor Jerry Brown, and the Corrections Department secretary. While the prisoners wait for a response to their demands, activist Linda Evans says they continue to help spread the word about this protest.
EVANS: Communication is very, very difficult. That’s one of the first things that they shut down inside any prison system when there’s an effort at resistance. There has been time for information to come to the outside and then go back in, through prisoner newsletters, through letters from family members, through communications with lawyers.
BACHEMIN: What began as a hunger strike among inmates of the isolation unit at Pelican Bay Prison has turned into a statewide display of solidarity. Officials say that, statewide, 800 inmates at six institutions are refusing their state-issued food. That number peaked over the 4 July weekend at an estimated 6,600 inmates.
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