The last of the 12,000 California inmates who were on a hunger strike for rights ended their protest.  Inmates in several prisons were demanding the end to long-term solitary confinement, which studies have shown is detrimental to mental health and may increase recidivism.  Solitary confinement is a very controversial punishment and protection practice.  Some people believe that the usage of solitary confinement is unconstitutional.  Inmates on average spend 5 years in solitary confinement, at the discretion of the prison with little to no oversight on the decision making.  They also wanted to end, what is known as “debriefing”, where an inmate is required to provide information on prison gangs or they are not allowed out of solitary confinement.  The Corrections Department issued a statement saying all the hunger strikers were taking state-issued meals and that the department will “continue to implement the substantive reforms in California’s Security Housing Units that we initiated two years ago.”

solitary-confinementPrisoners in solitary confinement are held in the security housing units.  Two months ago, there were 300 inmates in the California systems that were making the transition back to general population.  The hunger strikers had other demands, including warmer clothing.  The strike’s leaders were in the maximum-security prison at Pelican Bay, near the Oregon state line.  The strike ended before any inmates became seriously ill.

The California prison system has been under scrutiny for its treatment of prisoners and upkeep of prisons.  Recently, a federal judge ruled that the state of California must move thousands of inmates (who are in the vulnerable health risk category) out of two prisons that are infested with a deadly airborne fungus.  The fungus is known as valley fever.  It originates in the soil of the San Joaquin Valley, where the prisons are located.  18 prisoners died in 2012 and early 2013 from the fungus.  U.S. District Judge Henderson criticized Governor Brown’s administration for delaying response to the problem for years and then for recently delaying again for months until the CDC completed health studies.

“Defendants have…clearly demonstrated their unwillingness to respond adequately to…health care needs…” the judge said. 

California originally wanted to only move 600 of the vulnerable prisoners and ignore others who were at increased risk of death.  Even so, the spotlight has mostly been on their severe overcrowding.  Prison overcrowding is a nationwide issue, but California’s problems are unique in their scope.  A three-judge panel recently ruled that the only option for California to improve conditions and to meet standards is to reduce the population.

“The order is absolutely necessary to preserve people’s lives and health because state officials have been simply unwilling to take appropriate action when there’s a clear and imminent danger to prisoners’ lives. It’s the most recent example of the state’s inability to protect the health of prisoners,” said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office that successfully sought both the valley fever and prison crowding orders.

Governor Brown is currently trying to persuade judges that the state has improved its medical and mental health system within the prison and can meet constitutional standards.  Brown recently requested $315 million from California’s legislature to improve the prisons.

“This legislation will protect public safety and give us time to work with public officials and interested parties to make thoughtful changes in the overall criminal justice system,” the governor said in a statement.

Brown also said he plans to suspend the closure of the California Rehabilitation Center and to lease prison space outside of the state.

“While today’s announcement helps address the prison crisis in the short term, there’s still more work to be done to address the challenges in the criminal justice system,” said Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway.

Brown also plans to appeal the requirement to reduce the population to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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