SACRAMENTO — California lawmakers grilled state prison officials about controversial isolation units Wednesday, saying policies allowing long-term solitary confinement of inmates are "beyond the pale."

The hearing was an outgrowth of a two-month hunger strike that began in July and involved thousands of inmates protesting prison conditions.

"The issues that were raised during the hunger strike are real," said Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley). "They cannot be ignored."

There are slightly more than 4,000 inmates in isolation units at four prisons, according to state Inspector General Robert Barton.

About 40% of the inmates in those wards were placed there for specific infractions, such as attacking an officer or drug trafficking. The rest are considered members of prisons gangs, Barton said, and are isolated indefinitely.

The average stay in solitary is four years, according to state officials, but there are currently 23 inmates who have been isolated for at least 25 years. Some in those units have cellmates, but all have limited contact with others and may be allowed outside their cells for only an hour a day.

Lawmakers were unhappy that officials were unable to give them firm data on the cost of those wards or the prevalence of suicide there, and they questioned the use of isolation units as a response to violence and gang activity behind bars.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) asked if the units reduced gang membership.

"I don't know that's the case at all," said Michael Stainer, acting director of the Division of Adult Institutions at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Prison officials are already implementing stricter rules on when an inmate can be considered a gang member, requiring more evidence before an inmate is isolated.

Activists and family members of inmates filled the audience Wednesday, applauding criticism of state policies and snickering at corrections officials' answers.

A former inmate, Steven Czifra, testified about his experience in the Pelican Bay isolation unit. He was put there after he fought with another inmate and spit on a guard.

Before he went in, he said, "I was a whole human being. When I left, I was a deeply fractured human being."

He described the isolation ward as a "torture chamber."

The United Nations' special investigator on torture, Juan Mendez, is hoping to probe California's prison system, but his five-month-old request has not been granted by the U.S. State Department.

Another legislative hearing on prison policies is scheduled for Oct. 21. Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) said lawmakers will examine possible changes in sentencing laws and prison educational programs.

"The committee's goal will be real data-based, long-term solutions that will help us stop spending excessive money on prisons," he said in a statement.

chris.megerian@latimes.com