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Lawmakers to probe state prison conditions

The Bay Area lawmakers who chair the Legislature’s public safety committees announced Friday that they’ll hold public hearings on state prison conditions that have lead to a months-long inmate hunger strike.

State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said the hearings might begin this fall and continue into 2014, focused upon confinement conditions in maximum-security prisons and long-term solitary confinement as both a prison-management strategy and a human-rights issue.

Tom Ammiano“The Courts have made clear that the hunger strikers have legitimate issues of policy and practice that must be reviewed,” Ammiano said in a joint news release. “The Legislature has a critical role in considering and acting on their concerns. We cannot sit by and watch our state pour money into a system that the US. Supreme Court has declared does not provide constitutionally acceptable conditions of confinement and that statistics show has failed to increase public safety.

“California continues to be an outlier in its use of solitary confinement, which has been recognized internationally and by other states to be an extreme form of punishment that leads to mental illness if used for prolonged periods of time,” Hancock said in the release. “Since many of these inmates will eventually have served their sentences and will be released, it is in all our best interest to offer hope of rehabilitation while they are incarcerated – not further deterioration.”

Hancock and Ammiano urged an immediate end to the hunger strike so that energy and attention can be focused on the issues that have been raised. The inmates have succeeded in bringing the issues to the public eye, they said, and there’s no need for further sacrifice or risk.

Dolores Canales, a member of the inmate strikers’ mediation team and mother of a convicted murderer in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State, said the prison activists appreciate the lawmakers’ action.

“Ultimately it is up to the hunger strikers’ themselves as to when and how they will end their protest,” she said. “But as their advocates on the outside, we feel positive about today’s developments.”