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Monday, August 19, 2013

California Prison Official: ‘Hunger Strike Needs To Be Resolved’

A lock is seen on a small port where items are passed to inmates without having to open the cell door in the Secure Housing Unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

A lock is seen on a small port where items are passed to inmates without having to open the cell door in the Secure Housing Unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

In California, a prison hunger strike has been going on for six weeks.

At the beginning of the strike, 30,000 inmates across the state began fasting to protest prison conditions, including solitary confinement.

As of yesterday, 129 California inmates remain on strike. Of those, 69 have reportedly been fasting since July 8.

Prison officials believe the strike is part of a strategy by violent gang members to resume interaction with other inmates for criminal activity.

In solitary for 23 years

Among those on hunger strike is Ronnie Dewberry, also known as Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, who has been in prison since 1981 for murder. Dewberry is a plaintiff in the Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit challenging long-term solitary confinement.

His sister, Marie Levin, is part of the coalition Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.

“It’s a concrete, windowless cell that’s 8 by 12 [feet],” Levin told Here & Now. “It only contains a sink, a toilet and a little stub that they sit on. There’s not windows, so they’re circulating air that comes in, but no fresh air. They can’t look out to see the sunlight.”

Official: It’s not solitary confinement

But the Department of Corrections says that it has already met the demands of the prisoners, including the demand to limit the length of solitary confinement.

“The hunger strike needs to be resolved. They need to resume eating,” Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the department told Here & Now, noting that she’s hearing reports that “many of them are suffering some very dire health issues.”

Thornton said the California Department of Corrections does not consider holding prisoners in secure housing units (SHU) and administrative segregation units a form of solitary confinement.

“Certain inmates are housed in SHU because their conduct endangers the safety of others or the safety of the prison,” Thornton said.

A high-risk form of protest

Thornton added that inmates should raise their concerns in “more productive ways” than not eating.

“I don’t want to sound cold-hearted, but this department does not condone inmate disturbances,” Thornton said. “The department can’t negotiate and change policy or make policy or even discuss policy under threats or intimidation.”

Meantime, Levin stands by her brother’s continued participation in the hunger strike — despite the risk.

“I don’t want him to die,” Levin said. “But if him continuing in this fight for some kind of relief for himself and for the other prisoners that are suffering under the same conditions, if that means that he needs to go forth and continue on, then I’m with him.”

Guest

  • Marie Levin, sister of incarcerated inmate participating in hunger strike. She’s also a member of the coalition Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity.
  • Terry Thornton, deputy press secretary for California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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