By Laird Harrison
OAKLAND, California (Reuters) - A 27-year-old convicted murderer has died while on a hunger strike to protest restrictions on access to health, good food, legal services and other amenities in a segregation unit at a California prison, prison officials said on Friday.
Christian Alexander Gomez died on February 2, six days after he and 31 other inmates in the Corcoran State Prison's administrative segregation unit began refusing food, said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
There was no immediate word on the cause of death, and Thornton said the prison had not yet received an autopsy report from the Kings County Coroner, who could not be reached for comment.
Gomez was among thousands of California prisoners who have staged hunger strikes in waves since July, starting with protests against isolation units at Pelican Bay State Prison and rippling throughout the rest of the state corrections system.
The strikes began after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last May that California prison overcrowding was causing "needless suffering and death," and ordered the state to reduce the number of prisoners to 110,000, still well over the maximum capacity, from 140,000.
At least 4,000 prisoners participated in the strikes at their height in October, prison officials have said, although prisoner advocates have put the number higher, at up to 12,000.
The Corcoran strike focused on an administrative segregation unit where prisoners are held while awaiting hearings on infractions they are accused of committing in prison.
Gomez, who was found unresponsive in his cell before he was sent to an outside hospital and pronounced dead, was being held there after being charged with attacking a fellow prisoner, Thornton said. He had been serving a life sentence for first-degree murder and attempted murder.
NEWS OF DEATH FILTERED OUT SLOWLY
Prisoner rights activists said the news of Gomez's death had filtered out slowly. The prison made no public announcement at the time of his death, and Thornton said the prison was only obligated to report an inmate's death to his next of kin.
Theresa Cisneros, spokeswoman for Corcoran, said prisoners at the administrative segregation unit where Gomez was held have limited access to an exercise yard, cannot initiate new education programs and do not have radio or television access.
"It's not punishment," she said. "It's just that they are only there temporarily."
But because beds are sometimes not available at the units to which they are being transferred, the inmates in the segregation unit may have to stay there for up to six months, Thornton said.
A list of complaints attributed to the Corcoran strikers by the website sfbayview.com includes unsanitary food and limited access to legal services, telephones, laundry, health services, television and radio, and rehabilitation and education.
Cisneros said prisoners in the segregation units have access to nurses and doctors "24 hours a day."
Prisoners on hunger strike are weighed and their vital signs are taken every day, and they are not allowed to starve, she said. "I don't think they could," she said. "We have a process to prevent that."
Thornton said the Corcoran hunger strike ended on February 13. But prison activist Isaac Ontiveros of the group Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity denied that.
"As far as I know, there are still prisoners who are striking there," he told Reuters, attributing his information to family members of other prisoners.
Activists have planned nationwide protests for Monday against U.S. prison conditions and California's high incarceration rate.
The state has begun carrying out a plan to ease prison overcrowding by shifting responsibility for thousands of inmates and ex-convicts to county authorities.
The state's prison system has been in receivership and supervised by the U.S. District Court for Northern California since 2006, when that court found the existing system unconstitutionally inadequate.
(Editing By Peter Bohan and Cynthia Johnston)