Celebrities support prison strike

Gloria Steinem, Jesse Jackson, Bonnie Raitt and Jay Leno have joined prison hunger strikers in calling for an end to California’s use of solitary confinement to control prison gang violence.

The civil rights crusaders, singer and late-night comedian are among those who signed a letter sent Monday to Gov. Jerry Brown. The letter calls isolation units “extensions of the same inhumanity practiced at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.”

The letter to Brown, to be followed by a demonstration Tuesday at the Capitol, was arranged by the National Religion Campaign Against Torture and local supporters of the prison protesters.

The organization, based in Washington, is pushing to close solitary confinement units at prisons in 13 states, viewing such isolation as torture, said Executive Director Richard Killmer.


Brown’s spokesman referred a request for comment to the corrections department.

Isolation units “serve a vital role in state prisons, keeping staff and other inmates safe from the same violent gangs leading the hunger strike and terrorizing communities across California,” corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said.

Other notables who signed the letter to Brown include political critic Noam Chomsky, Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman and actor Peter Coyote.

Some of the signers have visited California prisons. Raitt performed once at San Quentin, and her interactions with the warden and inmates there “made a profound impact on her,” said a spokeswoman, Annie Heller-Gutwillig.

Others said they learned of the issue more recently through activists.

“I was appalled at this unlimited, indiscriminate use [of isolation] by prison administrators, so I rallied my network,” said UCLA psychiatry professor Susan Smalley. Those contacts included her friend Mavis Leno, wife of Jay Leno.

The hunger strikers’ supporters began to gather the signatures more than a month before the hunger strike began, said Carole Travis, a lawyer representing inmates in a federal lawsuit over long-term isolation at Pelican Bay State Prison.

On Monday, prison officials said 385 inmates have refused meals continuously since July 8, with 176 more now on shorter protests.

Prison medical staff reported that six inmates have required treatment since Saturday, including three who were sent to outside hospitals for care and returned the next day to cells.

More than 50 prisoners have received care since July 18, when the first protest-related medical issues arose, according to representatives of the court-appointed overseer of prison healthcare in California.

Advocacy groups called for an investigation into the death a week earlier of a protester at the state prison in Corcoran. Corrections officials said the inmate, Billy Sell, had already resumed eating when he apparently killed himself in his cell.

King County Chief Deputy Coroner Tom Edmonds said Monday that he had ruled Sell’s death a suicide by strangulation but was awaiting toxicology results before issuing a report.