By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A California prison inmate whose death was attributed by activists to his participation in a mass hunger strike appears to have died by hanging, the local medical examiner's office said on Monday after an initial examination of his body.
Billy Sell, 32, serving a life term for attempted murder at the Corcoran State Prison in central California, was found unconscious last Monday in his cell in the facility's "security housing unit," where prisoners are held in solitary confinement.
Sell, who faced further charges in the 2007 slaying of a cell mate, was pronounced dead that night at the prison's hospital in a case that prison officials said was under investigation as a suicide.
Their contention was bolstered by the initial findings of the Kings County Coroner's Office, which said Sell appeared to have died from "ligature strangulation," as if by hanging.
Deputy Coroner Tom Edmonds said a conclusive determination for the cause of death hinged on completion of an autopsy and toxicology studies.
The coroner's findings so far were at odds with the assertions from supporters of an inmate hunger strike that entered its fourth week on Monday and ranks as the largest in California prison history.
According to inmate advocates, fellow prisoners said Sell was among those refusing meals and had been requesting medical attention for several days before his death.
The hunger strike was launched July 8 to protest solitary confinement practices and other conditions cited by inmates as inhumane within the state prison system.
Officials of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have denied that Sell had been taking part in the hunger strike prior to his death.
Isaac Ontiveros, a spokesman for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, said his group was seeking an independent investigation of Sell's death, and suggested that issues raised by protesting inmates were a factor.
"However this person died, could this not have been avoided by addressing the demands the hunger strikers have been making for nearly a month now?" he asked.
Thousands of inmates in high-security lockups throughout the state launched the hunger strike on July 8 to protest what advocates say is the cruel and unfair use of solitary confinement as punishment within the system.
Supporters say more than 30,000 of California's 132,800 inmates have taken part in the action.
The state says it has 4,527 inmates held in security housing units, some for committing crimes while incarcerated and others who have been identified as gang members.
Inmate advocates put the number of state prisoners confined in extreme isolation at nearly 12,000.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Ken Wills)