The protest began Monday, when organizers said as many as 30,000 inmates refused food. By Thursday, a total of 12,421 prisoners had skipped nine consecutive meals — the official definition of a hunger strike, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation — and another 1,300 others have skipped work assignments or classes, prison officials reported.
Organizers say the strike is a resumption two similar protests in 2011, one of which lasted for three weeks.
“I would say if the demands have been met, they wouldn’t be going on a hunger strike,” said Kamau Walton, a member of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition. “People don’t starve themselves for no reason.”
Inmate demands include an end to long-term solitary confinement and halting what’s known as the “debriefing” policy, in which inmates are required to provide information on prison gangs to get out of solitary.
Other demands include warmer clothing, better mattresses and better food. In a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, protest leaders say the quality of prison food “dramatically decreased” since the California Prison Industry Authority began supplying the cafeterias.
The strike’s leaders are in the maximum-security prison at Pelican Bay, near the Oregon state line, Walton said, but inmates in other participating lockups are encouraged to add their own demands. The Corrections Department said the strike is organized by prison gangs and that inmates will face disciplinary action for taking part.
“Mass hunger strikes, work stoppages and other disruptions have the potential to impact programs, operations, staffing, safety and security,” a statement from the agency read.
The department said it had instituted reforms to its solitary confinement policies in 2012. Since then, more than 300 “Security Housing Unit” inmates have either been transferred back to the general population or are taking part in a program to gradually return them there, it said.
State prisons house about 120,000 inmates, according to a June report from the Public Policy Institute of California.