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Calif. prison chief meets with inmate advocates

  • Article by: LAURA OLSON
  • Associated Press
  • August 2, 2013 - 7:30 PM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Advocates for inmates on a hunger strike to protest California's solitary confinement program met with the state prisons chief on Friday as they pushed for an end to practices they say are inhumane.

Mediators who support the protesting inmates issued a statement after the hour-long meeting with Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, saying they offered ideas for ending the hunger strike and improving prison conditions that include indeterminate sentences in isolation units.

"He received us well and listened to our concerns and those of the prisoners and their families," the statement said.

Ron Ahnen, president of California Prison Focus, who was among those who met with Beard, declined to elaborate on the secretary's response to their suggestions.

Corrections officials said more than 300 inmates have refused all meals since the strike began on July 8. About 30,000 inmates initially participated.

Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton described the meeting with inmate advocates as "very cordial," saying Beard answered their questions and explained the changes California has already made to the confinement program.

Those include temporary policy revisions allowing some inmates classified as gang members to be moved out of the units based on their behavior. The previous process involved a "debriefing," which prisoners said required them to inform on other inmates.

Isaac Ontiveros, spokesman of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, said inmate advocates are seeking further policy changes, which they discussed during Friday's meeting.

"This mediation team is waiting for (corrections officials) to take the next step," Ontiveros said. "Hopefully it will be a step in the right direction."

Thornton said the agency will review the group's policy suggestions. Officials intend to make permanent changes to the solitary confinement program after evaluating last year's changes, she said.

This is the third hunger strike launched since 2011 to protest living conditions in those prison units, where 4,500 gang members, gang associates and serious offenders are held.

Some celebrities, including Jay Leno and Gloria Steinem, have spoken out against the isolation of inmates, signing a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown. Families of some prisoners on Tuesday sent the governor a petition against solitary confinement bearing tens of thousands of signatures.

The meeting occurred shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling paving the way for the early release of nearly 10,000 California inmates. A majority of the court rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's emergency request to halt a lower court's directive for the early release of prisoners, which is intended to ease severe overcrowding at California's 33 adult prisons.

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