Dozens of inmates at a Utah state prison entered the fourth day of a hunger strike Monday, hoping to force corrections officials to improve conditions for maximum-security inmates who, civil rights activists say, face extremely restrictive living conditions.
In a statement issued Monday, the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said more than 40 prisoners at the Utah State Prison in Draper, roughly 20 miles outside of Salt Lake City, have refused food since July 31.
The prisoners, housed in the maximum-security Uinta facility, are calling for improved conditions for inmates held in what is known as the Special Threat Group, or STG, where violent inmates are locked in cells with a bunkmate for 47 out of every 48 hours, the ACLU said.
"Most of these folks are going to be coming out and released into society again," said John Mejia, legal director of the ACLU of Utah. "If you are sending someone back into the community after years of isolation and no programming and a lot of difficult conditions, it feels in a lot of ways that you're not setting up that person for success."
Though the ACLU understands the security challenges prison officials are facing in maximum-security facilities, Mejia said, policies like those described by Uinta facility inmates are extreme. They are a departure from the national trend toward focusing on reintegrating and rehabilitating inmates, he said.
The ACLU said it has received dozens of letters complaining about STG housing. Those inmates are also denied access to educational or rehabilitative programs, and are not allowed to participate in work programs at the prison, the ACLU said.
"We have nothing in here… how are we supposed to better ourselves when we can't get any programming?" one prisoner wrote in a letter to the ACLU, according to the release.
According to Mejia, another inmate described being housed in the STG area and largely isolated for nearly five years.
Corrections officials have met with the ACLU, the Disability Law Center and the state's prisoner advocate network about those changes, according to the statement.
"While we respect the right of these inmates to refuse to eat, we believe there are more positive ways to raise concerns and bring about change," the Department of Corrections said in a statement. "We do not negotiate or respond to demands, threats or intimidation from inmates."
Initial reports suggested the inmates were calling for the release of specific prisoners, but the ACLU said none of the letters it received from prisoners included that demand. Prisoners also complained of a lack of nutrition and supplies to maintain hygiene and poor medical treatment within the facility, according to the ACLU.
FOR THE RECORD
Aug. 3, 8:42 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said that according to the ACLU, reports suggesting that the inmates were calling for the release of specific prisoners were untrue. The ACLU said Monday night that it does not know whether those reports were true, but that the prisoners who wrote to the advocacy group did not include that demand.
In its own statement, the Utah Department of Corrections said it received a letter on Friday from the 42 inmates involved in the protest, listing six demands. Chief among them was the call for the relocation of several gang leaders involved in the STG program, according to the statement.
Prison officials said several of the changes the prisoners are calling for, including modifications to the way inmates are classified as threats and the amount of time maximum-security inmates receive outside of their cells, have been under review for months now. Mejia said the ACLU met with prison officials before the hunger strike began, but were given no firm timeline for when the proposed changes might be instituted.
The prisoners involved in the strike received medical checks on Monday, according to the statement.
It was not immediately clear how many inmates at Draper live in the conditions described by the ACLU.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said that 616 male prisoners of the total 3,032 incarcerated at the Utah State Prison are housed in the Uinta facility. She declined to answer additional questions.
State law does allow for force-feeding of prisoners, but a judge would have to issue an order authorizing involuntary feeding for each individual inmate.