Monday, October 10, 2011

527. California Prisoners' Hunger Resume

By Ian Lovett, The New York Times, October 7, 2011

LOS ANGELES — When inmates across California’s state prisons went on a hunger strike in July, prison officials negotiated with them, ultimately reaching an agreement to bring the strike to an end after three weeks.

But since inmates resumed the strike last week in continued protest against conditions of prolonged isolation, things have gone differently: the corrections department has cracked down, trying to isolate the strike leaders, some of whom say they no longer trust the department and are hoping to push the governor to enact reforms.
“I’m ready to take this all the way,” J. Angel Martinez, one of the strike leaders at Pelican Bay State Prison, said in a message conveyed through a lawyer this week. “We are sick and tired of living like this and willing to die if that’s what it takes.”
This time, though, both sides have shown less inclination to compromise, and no negotiations between the strike leaders and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have taken place since the strike resumed.
An internal memo from George J. Giurbino, director of the Division of Adult Institutions for the department, outlined new, more aggressive processes for dealing with mass hunger strikes.
The new protocols seek to isolate inmates participating in the strike from those in the general population and potentially subject them to disciplinary measures, while prisoners identified as strike leaders could potentially be denied contact with visitors and even lawyers.
In addition, two lawyers who had helped mediate talks were temporarily barred from state prisons last week because “their presence in the institution/facility presents a security threat.”
The animosity goes both ways, suggesting no easy resolution to a situation in which inmates are protesting being kept in isolation in excess of 22 hours a day, part of an attempt to hamper gangs.
In late July, inmates ended their initial strike after officials agreed to concessions for prisoners in security housing units, including allowing them wall calendars, hobby items like drawing paper and a comprehensive review of how inmates are placed in these isolation units.
The new hunger strike drew 4,000 people last week across the state. But that number had drifted to fewer than 800 by Friday, according to corrections officials, as the department has moved to isolate participants from the general prison population.
Terry Thornton, a department spokeswoman, said that the promised reforms were continuing as promised, and officials remained willing to negotiate, but that leaders had not approached them with a new list of demands.
“Everything we said we were going to do, we did,” Ms. Thornton said. “We are kind of puzzled about why this action was taken again. The review takes time, but we are on track.”
Mistrust of the department is fervent among strike leaders, according to Anne Weills, a lawyer who met with four of them at Pelican Bay. Prisoner rights advocates have also accused the department of low-balling the number of prisoners involved in the strike, arguing that as many as 12,000 inmates had participated.
Ms. Thornton confirmed that 15 inmates at Pelican Bay had been moved to an administrative housing unit because they were identified as coercing other inmates into participation. She also said that all the strike leaders at Pelican Bay were confirmed gang members, and that four of the 11 leaders had ended their strikes.
But Ms. Weills said other prisoners told her that those four did so because they could no longer endure conditions at the administrative housing unit where they had been moved.
“We’re freezing,” Ronald Yandell, one of the strike leaders, said to Ms. Weills this week. “The air-conditioner is blowing. It’s like arctic air coming through, blowing at top speed. It’s torture. They’re trying to break us.”
Oscar Hidalgo, a spokesman for the corrections department, said he did not know why the four leaders had ended their strike.
Sharon Dolovich, a professor of prison law at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the department’s response to the second strike reflected court cases in the last 25 years that had given officials more discretion to clamp down on inmate rights.
“Before, they didn’t want to seem inhumane, and now they’re in damage control mode,” she said. “They’re demonstrating that they’re willing to use the full scope of legal discretion to shut it down.”

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