As the protest ends, issue shifts to the state Legislature
California’s longest and largest hunger strike in prison system history concluded Wednesday.
The strike began with 30,000 inmates, but had dwindled to about 100 active participants earlier this week, with 40 of those continuously fasting since the strike’s onset July 8.
Leaders of the hunger strike, housed in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit, called off the strike following the promise of legislative hearings by the state Senate and Assembly’s public safety committees.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is looking to nurse the fasting inmates back to good health, said spokesperson Dana Simas.
“The hunger strike kind of waned anyway. We were down to two prisons by the end of the hunger strike,” said Simas. “It’s not a huge transition.”
CDCR’s deputy director of adult institutions, Michael Stainer, will be meeting with the strike leaders, Simas said.
He will be meeting with them to see “if they have any more concerns, if there’s anything else that may be going on or organizing to make sure CDCR is prepared,” said Simas.
Doctors will continue to monitor inmates and provide advice as they transition back to solid foods, said Liz Gransee, a public information officer for the California Correctional Health Care Services.
The strikes were predominantly protesting the practice of indefinite placement in the SHUs to thwart prison gang communications. As of Aug. 16, there were 3,664 inmates housed in California’s SHUs with about a third located at Pelican Bay. The population includes inmates serving both indefinite and set terms.
Last week, Public Safety Committee chairs Sen. Loni Hancock D-Berkley, and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, announced plans for a joint hearing later this year.
The hearing will include members of both committees, experts, researchers and prison officials, Hancock told the Triplicate, adding the earliest they would occur is next month.
Ammiano has on multiple occasions criticized the use of SHUs. He previously told the Triplicate he has largely based his opinions on what he’s heard from prisoner rights groups and the media.
Hancock said there will likely be multiple hearings regarding expanding privileges for inmates, the conditions and effectiveness of the SHUs and policies of placing inmates into the units. The first hearing is set to discuss the conditions of the SHUs and the effects of long-term confinement in the units, as well as whether they abuse human rights.
“The corrections department does have a blueprint that they’re working on,” said Hancock. “There are so many issues to look at. The issue of solitary confinement and conditions in our SHUs have definitely been on the list.”
Hancock has not visited Pelican Bay, but said she hopes to before the initial joint hearing.
“I definitely want to, and in this case I think we’re going to need to,” said Hancock.
CDCR already has a pilot program that offers inmates another way out of the SHU besides dropping out of their gangs, and has been reviewing the files of inmates for possible release from SHUs. It has also made it tougher for certain inmates to be placed in the SHUs.
“We are confident we have a healthy balance of personal privilege while maintaining safety within out institutions,” said Simas.”We are proud of the changes that we’ve made and how they’re operating and we offer (legislators) an open door to come in.”
The hearing will be the third in the past two years sparked by hunger strikes led by Pelican Bay inmates. Two strikes, each lasting about 20 days, in 2011 led to two Assembly Public Safety Committee hearings to discuss the conditions and placement and retainment of inmates in the SHU.
It wasn’t until shortly before the second hearing in February 2013 that a member of the committee (Ammiano) actually visited Pelican Bay, though a majority of the committee members have voiced support for the inmates’ demands.
No legislative proposals or suggestions came out of the hearings.
“I think they had great hearings,” said Hancock. “I think the time is now for us to actually act as policy-makers.”
The CDCR has contended since the onset of the first hunger strikes in 2011 that the protests are a push for gang leaders to be released from the SHUs in order to expand their criminal enterprises. Each of the four inmates who have led these hunger strikes has been identified by prison investigators as leaders of the four main prison gangs in California.
Two of the strike leaders are represented in an ongoing lawsuit that seeks the release into the general prison population of all Pelican Bay inmates housed in the SHU for more than 10 years.
“One of the strategies of CDCR has been to focus on the criminal records of the plaintiffs,” said Hancock. “We want to talk about the policy and how it affects the people of California.”