By Jason Kandel
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Thousands of inmates in up to eight California prisons have taken part in a 9-day-old hunger strike, demanding an end to what they call inhumane conditions, prison officials and an inmate advocacy group said on Tuesday.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was counting 1,186 inmates in four prisons as participating in the hunger strike as of Tuesday, down from more than 4,200 inmates at eight prisons on September 29.
But a prisoner rights group put the number of strike participants higher, saying as many as 12,000 inmates at eight California state prisons have taken part in refusing to eat.
The protest comes as California has begun carrying out a state-mandated plan to ease prison overcrowding by shifting responsibility for thousands of inmates and ex-convicts to county authorities.
The current hunger strike grew out of a protest started in July by prisoners housed in Northern California's Pelican Bay State Prison.
Inmates there were pressing a list of five demands -- an end to group punishments; an end to a policy that requires an inmate to identify fellow gang members in exchange for getting out of solitary confinement; an end to long-term solitary confinement; adequate and nutritious food; and greater privileges for prisoners confined to isolation indefinitely.
The original Pelican Bay strike ended in late July after prison officials promised some concessions. But the protest resumed on September 26 after inmates complained their concerns were not immediately addressed. The strike has since spread to prisons throughout the state.
Prisoner rights advocates planned to hold a solidarity rally on Wednesday outside the corrections department headquarters in Sacramento.
"We're trying to amplify these prisoners' voices so they can win these demands," said Isaac Ontiveros, a spokesman for the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity. "The prisoners' demands are more than reasonable given their harsh and terrible conditions that they've been forced to endure for decades."
Terry Thornton, a corrections department spokeswoman, said prison officials were reviewing the demands but that policy changes take time.
Prison guards have removed several leaders of the hunger strike from the general inmate population and have cut off visiting privileges for some instigators at Pelican Bay, Thornton said.
She said prison guards were on alert after hearing that some inmates were being coerced to take part in the hunger strike and would suffer retaliation unless they did.
"So far everything has been peaceful," Thornton said. "I hope it remains that way."
She said two lawyers who were advocating for the striking inmates were under investigation for using the confidential attorney visiting process to call for a mass disturbance.
The attorneys, Marilyn McMahon, executive director of California Prison Focus, and Carol Strickman of Legal Services for Prisoners, were barred from visiting state prisons pending the outcome of the probe, Thornton said.
Joyce Hayhoe, the director of legislation for the California Correctional Healthcare Services, which is responsible for prison health care under a federal court ruling put in place in 2005, said there had been no significant medical issues among striking prisoners so far.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)