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California inmates end hunger strike over prison conditions

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California inmates have ended a two-month-old hunger strike that ranked as the largest in state history and took aim at a policy of keeping some prisoners in near-isolation for years, corrections officials and inmates said on Thursday.

Inmates credited a move by two California legislators to hold hearings on prison conditions as a reason for stopping the strike, which at its peak saw about 30,000 prisoners refusing food, even as they said most of their demands had not been met.

Some 100 inmates at two California prisons had remained on hunger strike as of Wednesday afternoon, with 40 having refused state-issued meals continuously since they began their protest on July 8, state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Dana Simas said.

But by Wednesday evening, they had begun taking food again, and all inmates who had been participating in the hunger strike were now taking meals or had otherwise started "the process of re-feeding," the department said in a statement.

"We are pleased this dangerous strike has been called off before any inmates became seriously ill," California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeff Beard said in a statement.

Without giving details, he said the prisons would "continue to implement the substantive reforms in California's Security Housing Units that we initiated two years ago." Beard said last month that most of the prisoners' core demands had already been addressed.

The protest centered on the so-called Security Housing Units, where inmates who have committed crimes in prison or are suspected of having gang ties are held in isolation or near-isolation.

The state has more than 3,600 inmates in the units, including 500 prisoners who have been held there for over 10 years, corrections officials said. Amnesty International has described conditions in the units as inhumane.

Strike leaders have castigated prison officials for not ending long-term confinement in the units and for requiring most inmates wanting to leave them to have a debriefing process in which they are expected to finger gang associates.

California prison officials have said the units are needed to prevent prison gangs from flexing their muscles and causing violence. Beard in a statement last month said the debriefing program "will not be abolished," despite the demands of inmates.

HEARINGS PLANNED

Two Democratic California legislators, Senator Loni Hancock and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, have called for hearings in October on prison conditions.

Hancock said in a phone interview she was relieved the strike had ended, saying prisoners had raised important policy issues and expressing concern that some inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, which houses many of California's most dangerous convicts, have been in solitary confinement for over 20 years.

"It does not improve public safety to have people who have been damaged by this sort of confinement going back into the public," she added.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Simas described the strike as the largest such action in California prisons history but said some prisoners with money who were counted as participating may have actually been eating because they could buy food at prison canteens.

In ending the strike, during which some inmates staved off starvation by drinking sports drinks, prisoners said most of their demands were unmet but that it was "in the best interest of our cause to suspend our hunger strike action until further notice."

"To be clear, our peaceful protest of resistance to our continuous subjection to decades of systemic state sanctioned torture via the system's solitary confinement units is far from over," they said in a statement, issued by the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group.

On dozens of occasions, inmates participating in the mass action were taken to hospitals for treatment of such problems as dehydration and disorientation, said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the prison health system. But no inmates died, she said.

For the most severely malnourished prisoners, it would be too dangerous to begin eating immediately because it can lead to heart failure, she said. Those inmates were being offered substitutes to a full meal, such as the powdery mix Carnation Instant Breakfast, she added.

Last month, California officials won permission from a federal court to force-feed some gravely ill inmates, even if they had signed orders asking not to be resuscitated. But the court ruling was only obtained as a precaution and never put into practice, Simas said.

One inmate in the hunger strike lost 50 pounds, said Anne Weills, an attorney representing inmates in a federal lawsuit.

In July, an inmate who had been participating in the hunger strike died, but an autopsy showed he hung himself to death and he had eaten four meals before he committed suicide, Simas said.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Maureen Bavdek, Richard Chang and Bob Burgdorfer)

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