The prison hunger strike is over… or is it?

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Matthew Cate issued a statement this morning saying inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison had ended their hunger strike.

Pelican Bay State Prison“Hunger strikes are a dangerous and ineffective way for prisoners to attempt to negotiate,” Cate said in his news release. “This strike was ordered by prison gang leaders, individuals responsible for terrible crimes against Californians, and so it was with significant and appropriate caution that CDCR worked to end the strike. We will now seek to stabilize operations for all inmates and continue our work to improve the safety and security of our prison system statewide.”

Cate said the strikers, who began their protest July 1, stopped yesterday “after they better understood CDCR’s plans, developed since January, to review and change some policies regarding SHU housing and gang management. These changes, to date, include providing cold-weather caps, wall calendars and some educational opportunities for SHU inmates.”

But this came as news to the prison activists who have been relating the strike to the outside world; lawyers and mediators haven’t heard from the hunger strikers that they’ve quit their protest.

“We would like to hear directly from the men at Pelican Bay that they have resumed eating and what demands, if any, have been met,” Carol Strickman, a lawyer with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, said in a news release this afternoon. “At this point, we have not been able to ascertain what concessions may have been granted.”

CDCR “has used deceptive tactics throughout this strike to try to overcome prisoner resistance,” Taeva Shefler, a member of Prison Activist Resource Center and Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, said in the same release. “In order to break the strike, the CDCR has regularly underestimated strike participation and withheld information regarding the health of striking prisoners. Prisoners not yet in solitary have been placed in Administrative Segregation or Security Housing Units as punishment for protesting. These are the very issues this strike aims to change in the first place.”

Pelican Bay SHU cellThe activists say hundreds of inmates refused food in order to protest conditions that international human rights groups have called torturous and inhumane. Inmates in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) – who have been classified as the prison system’s most dangerous and violent offenders – are kept in windowless, 6-foot-by-10-foot cells for about 23 and a half hours per day, sometimes for years. Their demands included an end to long-term solitary confinement, collective punishment, and forced interrogation on gang affiliation.

UPDATE @ 4:43 P.M.: The LA Times reports the inmates at Pelican Bay are eating again, but some inmates at Corcoran, Tehachapi and Calipatria – who’d started striking in sympathy with the Pelican Bay guys – are continuing to refuse meals.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.