State inmates have ended an epic two-month hunger strike after lawmakers promised to hold hearings over California’s use of special security units, where leaders of the protest have been held in isolation for years and in some cases decades.
Corrections officials and supporters of the protest announced about 100 inmates began accepting meals or began refeeding procedures this morning.
The move came after two Democratic lawmakers promised to hold hearings this fall on the conditions in security housing units, where men accused of gang ties can be held indefinitely.
“We are pleased this dangerous strike has been called off before any inmates became seriously ill,” corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said in a statement. Beard previously denounced the protest as an effort by dangerous gang leaders to reassert control over drug and extortion rackets behind bars and on the streets.
Supporters of the inmates see the planned hearings as a partial victory.
“California still practices solitary confinement. There are still people in solitary confinement for decades at a time. But what we have learned from the past couple of months is that change is possible,” said Isaac Ontiveros of the prison hunger strike solidarity committee.
While the strike is over, controversy persists over California’s use of the special units. A coalition of civil rights groups has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners held at Pelican Bay State Prison, the state’s highest-security lockup. Many of the plaintiffs in the federal suit were also involved in the hunger strike.
Prison officials say that, under a new policy, they are improving conditions in the units and transferring hundreds of inmates to regular prisons.
Paige St. John of the Los Angeles Times reports on behind-the-scenes discussions that brought the protest to a close.
In a call with inmate advocates Tuesday, state prison officials began discussing small changes in living conditions for those held in solitary confinement.
The next day the four leaders of the prolonged hunger strike asked prison guards to set up a meeting with the handful of core organizers still housed in isolation units at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border, said inmate attorney Anne Weills.
Weills said prison officials agreed. The strike leadership and 14 of their organizers — representing four main ethnic and racial groups in California prisons — were assembled in the prison’s law library to discuss whether it was time to end the protest.
KQED News’ Mina Kim talks with Michael Montgomery about the outcome of the prison hunger strike, and about the slow, delicate process of re-introducing food to inmates: