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Hunger strikes give inmates huge platform for protests

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SACRAMENTO -- For inmates in solitary confinement in California prisons, there are very few ways to send a message to the outside world. Phone calls are not allowed, and letters are read by prison officials before they’re dropped in the mail. Internet access is banned.

So inmate leaders say they're launching a new hunger strike to protest conditions at lockups around the state.

The last time they organized such an effort was two years ago. The hunger strike eventually spread to thousands of inmates at one-third of the state’s prisons.

A core group of 400 prisoners continued the protest for about three weeks, some losing about 30 pounds.

The hunger strike led to some small changes, like allowing inmates to buy wall calendars and sweat pants. Prison officials also agreed to change their policies on solitary confinement, such as requiring proof of gang-related behavior rather than mere association with prison gang members.

However, indefinite confinement remains a possibility, and only 400 currently isolated inmates have had their cases reviewed under the new criteria.

The security housing units at Pelican Bay and three other prisons isolate about 4,500 inmates who officials say have gang ties, or committed further crimes within prison.

The latest statewide protest, which began Monday, could dwarf the 2011 protest. So far 30,000 inmates at two-thirds of the state’s prisons and four out-of-state facilities have begun refusing meals. Prison officials say they do not officially recognize the hunger strike until inmates have missed nine consecutive meals.

In addition to the core demands for an end to indefinite solitary confinement, some inmates are seeking warmer clothes and better cleaning supplies for their cells. Others have broader goals, including changes to sentencing laws to end mandatory minimums and indefinite solitary confinement.

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Twitter: @chrismegerian

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