At least 400 inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison [official website] have been on a hunger strike since the end of June and are being joined by prisoners in at least 10 other California prisons. Inmates of Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU), a long-term isolation ward where one-third of the prison's population is held in solitary confinement, are the instigators of the strike, and most of the strikers in other prisons are inmates in solitary confinement. The prisoners demand [advocacy website]: an end to group punishments, abolition of a policy of interrogating alleged gang members for information and punishing them with solitary confinement if the information isn't good enough, prisons abiding by the recommendations in the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons 2006 report [text, PDF], increased quality of sanitary conditions and meals and an expansion of programs for those inmates indefinitely confined in the SHU. At the peak of the strike 6600 prisoners refused meals [Daily Triplicate report], but a prisoner is not considered to be on a hunger strike unless they refuse food for nine consecutive days. Advocates and prisoners' attorneys are claiming some inmates are becoming critically ill [Daily Triplicate report] as a result of the fast, but the California Prison Health Care Services [official website] denies this. The California Prison Health Care Services released a statement [text] that "sufficient medical resources are available to care for inmates who are participating in the hunger strike." California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation [official website] spokesperson Terry Thornton also denied that prisoners were put in SHU arbitrarily and stated that there is a continual open dialogue with prisoners. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is also denying the media access to the striking inmates [LAT report].
California has come under criticism in the past year for its overcrowded prison system. In May, the US Supreme Court [official website] upheld [JURIST report] an order requiring California to release up to 46,000 prisoners to remedy the state's overcrowded prisons [JURIST news archive]. The court concluded that the extreme overcrowding of the California prison system is causing inmates to receive inadequate medical care in violation of the Eighth Amendment [text]. In August 2009, a special panel of federal judges ordered [JURIST report] California to reduce its prison population by about 46,000 inmates or construct more facilities to handle the prisoners. Governor Jerry Brown [official website] submitted a plan [press release; materials] in June to reduce the prison population by over 30,000 inmates [JURIST report]. The submitted plan outlines measures that the state was taking to reduce prison populations including the passage of AB 109 [text], which once funded by the legislature, will transfer adult prisoners to local jails. The bill, which is already being implemented, is meant to reduce crowding by restructuring the parole system, providing inmates with more opportunities to earn early release credits, creating an alternative rehabilitative program for parole violators rather than being sent back to prison, and changing the law to increase the threshold for felonies in crimes that could be a misdemeanor depending on the amount stolen. The number of inmates currently in California prisons is approximately 143,500, about a 19,000 inmate reduction from 2006 when the plaintiffs filed their motions to convene the three-judge panel.