In downtown L.A., Zimmerman verdict, prison conditions draw ralliers

Three-year-old Salome Cuauhtemoc participates with his family in a rally in downtown L.A. in a show of support for state inmates on a hunger strike over prison conditions and to seek justice for Trayvon Martin, who was killed in Florida by George Zimmerman.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

More than 100 demonstrators gathered at the steps of a federal building in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon in a joint call for social justice in the wake of the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman and a California state prisoner hunger strike.

The protest came a day after more than 50 picketers stood outside the state Capitol and called for Gov. Jerry Brown to take a more active role in the hunger strike, which is entering its fourth week.

Some 600 inmates are still refusing to eat.


Speakers included ex-convicts, human rights activists and “Lethal Weapon” movie series actor Danny Glover. Behind a backdrop of LAPD officers guarding the building entrance, demonstrators called for criminal justice reform and more humane treatment of prisoners.

“Malcolm X said, ‘We talk about jail, we all in jail,” Glover said. “We in jail because the power defines us! We have to create a system that works for us.”

Signs displayed photos of inmates in the prison system’s security housing units, or SHU. Others had pictures of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen killed by Zimmerman during a confrontation last year. Zimmerman was found not guilty earlier this month, sparking a wave of protests across the country.

Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal are symptoms of a broken system, protestors said.

“We are trying to turn this tragedy into something positive and constructive,” said Ernest Shepherd III, who was in prison for 45 years and experienced the SHU first-hand. “I lived there. It’s a miracle I survived. It sure is not conducive to making you a solid citizen.”

The SHU is for the “worst of the worst,” according to the state, and rations every aspect of the prisoner’s life, from food and time spent outside to clothing. The top prison gang leaders are among those held in the SHU.

Prisoners can be held for indefinite amounts of time, depending on their offenses and gang affiliations. Prisoners and critics describe the conditions as inhumane. Proponents say it can limit a gang leaders’s influence over the rest of the population.

Demonstrators downtown Wednesday said prison officials need to reconsider the criteria for placing inmates in secured housing.

Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, told the Times Tuesday that the agency “has taken thoughtful steps over the past two years to improve security housing units because these 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.”


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