California prisoners end 60-day hunger strike after lawmakers vow to hold public hearings to discuss solitary confinement reforms

California prisoners ended their 60-day hunger strike after lawmakers agreed to hold public hearings to examine prison conditions and consider possible reforms to the state’s prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement practices.

“Our decision to suspend our third hunger strike in two years does not come lightly. This decision is especially difficult considering that most of our demands have not been met (despite nearly universal agreement that they are reasonable). The core group of prisoners has been, and remains 100% committed, to seeing this protracted struggle for real reform through to a complete victory, even if it requires us to make the ultimate sacrifice,” according to a written statement signed by 16 prisoners, including plaintiffs in the Ashker v. Brown lawsuit seeking to abolish prolonged solitary confinement.

Read more: Solitary Confinement in California

The prisoners emphasized that their fight to reform the state’s solitary confinement practices is “far from over”.

The hunger strike was called off after state Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) and state Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) announced that they will hold a series of public hearings beginning this fall to examine the issues raised by the prison hunger strikes.

“The issues raised by the hunger strike are real – concerns about the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California’s prisons – are real and can no longer be ignored,” Hancock, Chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, and Ammiano, Chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, said in a joint statement.

Read more: California prisoners begin hunger strike to protest solitary confinement conditions

In early July, between 12,000 to 30,000 inmates in over half of California’s prison began a hunger strike to protest the harsh conditions in security housing units [SHU] and the state’s excessive use of long-term solitary confinement to “manage” suspected prison gang members or associates. As of mid-August, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported 190 inmates who remained on the hunger strike.

Inmates placed in security housing units [SHU] are confined to a small, windowless cell for 22 to 24 hours a day, prohibited from making or receiving phone calls, denied contact visits, and are barred from participating in vocation, recreational, and education programs.

Read more: 5 things you should know about solitary confinement in California state prisons

While the average stay in solitary confinement is 7.5 years in California, there are more than 400 inmates who have served more than 10 years in extreme isolation at the super-max prison in Pelican Bay.

Juan Mendez, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, has called on the U.S. government to abolish prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement, saying the practice amounts to “cruel” punishment and even torture.

“Even if solitary confinement is applied for short periods of time, it often causes mental and physical suffering or humiliation, amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and if the resulting pain or sufferings are severe, solitary confinement even amounts to torture,” Mendez said in late August in response to the California prison hunger strike.

The harsh conditions have led the inmates to issue five “core” demands to state prison officials, asking them to:

(1) reform the gang validation process and abolish the “debriefing” requirement for inmates to leave the security housing units [SHU];

(2) stop the practice of group punishment and create a step-down program for inmates to earn their way out of the SHU;

(3) provide inmates with adequate food and cease withholding food as a punishment tool;

(4) expand educational programming for inmates serving indefinite SHU terms and allow them to buy or receive art supplies, stationary, and toiletry items; and

(5) end the practice of long-term solitary confinement.

Read more: Analysis: CDCR’s revised gang validation or security threat group classification system

These were similar demands issued during the 2011 hunger strikes, which were suspended after prison officials agreed to carry out some of the reforms sought. However, inmates have expressed frustration over the past year at CDCR’s failure to fulfill its promise to meet the prisoners’ core demands.

The latest hunger strike did not yield any change in the state’s policies.

CDCR officials maintained that the prisoners’ five core demands have already been addressed in the department’s Security Threat Group pilot program announced in October 2012.

The STG included a “step-down” program that would allow inmates to “earn” their way out of solitary confinement in 3 to 4 years instead of the current minimum 6-year term.

Prison officials said the STG and step-down program already address the individual accountability, end to indefinite solitary confinement, and the gang “validation” reform demanded by the striking prisoners. CDCR has refused to “abolish” the debriefing program – a demand that the department said is “non-negotiable”. (The SHU inmates argued that “debriefing” – which they say amount to snitching on others – would put them at risk for retaliations when they return to the general population.)

Read more: Analysis: Debriefing clause deters CA solitary confinement inmates from participating in step-down program

“The debriefing program will not be abolished. CDCR will always support offenders who want to disavow or disengage from the gang lifestyle. It is rehabilitation. This issue is non-negotiable,” according to CDCR’s statement on Aug. 26th. “However, CDCR has created a Step-Down program that enables an inmate serving an indeterminate SHU term to earn his way back to a general-population yard without dropping out of his gang as long as the inmate refrains from gang behavior.”

Prison officials also stated the prisoners’ demand for adequate food and an expansion of educational programming and privileges have already been addressed.

Read more: Analysis: CDCR’s pilot secure housing unit step-down program

CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard said the department will continue to “implement the substantive reforms” that were initiated two years ago.

“We are pleased this dangerous strike has been called off before any inmates became seriously ill. I’d like to commend my staff and the staff with the federal Receiver’s Office for working together to ensure the health and safety of all employees and inmates was a top priority,” Beard said in a statement.

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