SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Inmates who are refusing meals to protest the state's solitary confinement program for gang leaders are harming their own cause, California's prison chief said Wednesday in his first comments on the subject.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began a program last year that lets inmates with ties to gangs reduce isolation sentences that can last for decades.
That program has stopped since the protest began, Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said. Nor is the department likely to make more concessions to inmates, he said while attending a prisons oversight hearing.
About 30,000 inmates began refusing meals Monday to support inmates held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison. The number had fallen below 29,000 by Wednesday.
"I don't think it helps anything to do this," Beard told The Associated Press. "Much of what they're asking for is being done. It's just not being done fast enough for them ... The hunger strike actually interferes with the process."
The protest adds to problems facing Beard as he tries to transfer inmates who are particularly vulnerable to an airborne fungus that can lead to a potentially fatal disease known as valley fever. California is also challenging a different court order requiring the state to free nearly 10,000 inmates by year's end to reduce crowding and improve conditions.
The strike is the largest of three hunger strikes protesting conditions in California prisons in the last two years. After the earlier, smaller strikes, the department began its program giving gang members a way out of the isolation units. About half of the nearly 400 inmates considered so far have been or will be let out of solitary confinement, while another 115 are in a program in which they can work their way out of the units.
"I think the department has pretty much done what it can do," Beard said. "My hope is that they sort of make their point, get the thing over and we can go back and start doing the reviews."
The inmates want a quicker way out of the isolation program at Pelican Bay near the Oregon border and at three other maximum security prisons around the state, said Claude Marks, a spokesman for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition.
"They're asking for a more humane set of conditions that aren't designed to destroy people," Marks said. "If that's his position, that CDCR has nothing else to offer, then that explains why there's an issue."