Anthony Skeens, The Triplicate

Hunger strike isn't entirely voluntary, CDCR contends

A hunger strike permeating state prisons is not as peaceful as organizers and advocates claim, prison officials say.

On Thursday, 498 inmates in eight prisons were counted as hunger strikers as the number continues to dwindle entering the strike's 24th day.

The number could be lower if some inmates weren't fearful of retaliation if they resume eating, said Terry Thornton, a press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"There have been inmates who are saying they have been coerced to do this," said Thornton. "Some inmates ... say they want to resume eating, but they're fearful for their safety."

An inmate who suffered a broken eye socket and cheek bone Saturday morning returned to prison Tuesday after being treated at a hospital. The 51-year-old inmate was assaulted by his cellmate in the Corcoran State Prison Administrative Segregation Unit after refusing to share his food with hunger strikers, Thornton said.

There have been several reports of inmates sneaking hunger-strikers food; those caught were no longer considered to be protesting, Thornton said.

"There are some people that we're still showing are on a hunger strike and we know that they are eating, they just haven't been caught," said Thornton.

Other reports from inmates state they were given permission by strike leaders to resume eating, Thornton said.

The core group of inmates leading the thrid hunger strike in two years are housed in Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit. They are protesting the use of long-term solitary confinement to thwart prison gang communications.

Inmates claim they arebeing wrongly labelled gang affiliates, while the CDCR and some other inmates who participated in pastprotests insist it is being driven by prison gang leaders seeking release to grow their criminal enterprises.

The CDCR does not consider the SHU to be "solitary confinement," Thornton said.

"We don't have anything in California that could be described as solitary confinement," said Thornton. "One of the issues I've found is there's no consensus on what that is."

The term is too vague, said Thornton, adding that among human rights groups there's varying definitions.

A lot of myths about the SHU continue to be perpetuated, Thornton said.

She said she's seen media report about California's SHU inmates having no human contact or no natural light.

"If they are devoid of all human contact, how did they get 30,000 inmates to stop eating?" said Thornton.

With Pelican Bay's skylights, "there is natural light, there are no windows," said Thornton.

In the state's three other SHUs, located in California State Prison-Sacramento, Corcoran State Prison and California Correctional Institution, the SHUs have windows. Those SHUs are set up similar to other general population facilities in high-security prisons, Thornton said.

Some media and advocacy reports have also been "simplifying" the process by which inmates can be placed in the SHU, Thornton said.

The hunger strikes have been a publicity campaign to raise awareness of the conditions of the SHU and process of long-term solitary confinement in California's prisons so that those inmates held indefinitely can be released to the general population areas.

SHU inmates have been linked to murders and organized crime by state authorities and prison investigators.

Past strikes helped gain support from attorneys who have picked up a lawsuit that is now seeking to release all inmates who have been in Pelican Bay's SHU for more than 10 years to the general population.

Most recently, hunger-strikers have gained the support of celebrities, notable activists and political thinkers, including Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Angela Davis and Jay Leno. They attached their names to an open letter sent to Gov. Jerry Brown produced by prisoner advocates that is callingplacement of prisoners in the SHUs for several years "shameful" and comparing the practice to those at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

"What surprises me is that someone would put their name to something when they don't fully know the issues," said Thornton.

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