A hunger strike that began Friday in a high-security unit of the notorious Pelican Bay State Prison has spread to one-third of California's state prisons and now involves hundreds of inmates, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton stressed that the number of prisoners involved "fluctuates with every meal." State officials don't deem a prisoner to be involved in a true hunger strike until he refuses nine consecutive meals.
While it is unclear whether any prisoners yet meet that standard, Thornton said, "hundreds of inmates overall" are now refusing state-issued food at 11 of California's 33 state prisons. "We're talking about a very small percentage of the prison population," Thornton told SF Weekly.
The Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday that "fewer than two dozen inmates" were involved in the hunger strike. Thornton said that estimate was accurate at the time, but that the number has grown since then.
Activists and inmates say the strike is meant to call attention to inhumane conditions in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU), where dangerous prisoners are lodged in small, windowless cells, often without access to other people or open space for extended periods. Critics of the SHU say that solitary confinement is equivalent to psychological torture, a position that is buttressed by recent scientific research.
Thornton said the strike is being "driven" by gang members, and so far has not affected the population of female inmates. So far, she said, there has been no violence related to inmates' refusal of food.
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