Challenges mount for California prisons as inmates refuse meals

A correctional officer is seen in one of the housing units at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

SACRAMENTO -- The statewide protest launched by California inmates on Monday comes at a time of widespread turmoil in the state’s prison system.

Tens of thousands of prisoners are refusing meals as inmate leaders plan to renew a hunger strike that began two years ago. They’re demanding improvements in prison conditions and limits on how long inmates can be held in solitary confinement.

At the same time, legal battles involving overcrowding and disease outbreaks have dogged a prison system that has long been a magnet for controversy.

“We have a huge system with about 120,000 inmates in California prisons and well over 50,000 parolees,” said Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “Just by virtue of numbers, there are always going to be challenges to deal with.”


A panel of three federal judges has ordered Gov. Jerry Brown to release thousands of inmates by the end of the year, and they’ve refused the governor’s attempt to delay the order.

The judges have repeatedly said overcrowding has prevented inmates from receiving adequate medical care, causing unconstitutional conditions. Brown and other state officials say the prison population has been reduced enough already, and inmate releases could jeopardize public safety.

Thousands of inmates are also supposed to be moved out of two Central Valley prisons where they face increased risk of valley fever, a soil-borne fungus. At least three dozen inmates have died from the disease over the last six years.

A hunger strike could become another complication for the state prison system.


On Monday, 30,000 inmates refused meals. Prison officials say they do not officially recognize the hunger strike until inmates have missed nine consecutive meals.


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Twitter: @chrismegerian