By Laird Harrison
SAN QUENTIN, California (Reuters) - Hundreds of anti-Wall Street demonstrators and prison reform activists joined forces outside the gates of a prison in San Quentin, California on Monday to protest high incarceration rates and harsh living conditions.
Speakers rallying at the San Quentin State Prison said the state's sentencing laws are too strict. They called for an end to solitary confinement and the death penalty and said children should not be tried as adults.
"I myself experienced more than 14 months of solitary confinement," said Sarah Shourd, 33, an American who was imprisoned in Iran after being arrested while hiking near the Iraq border in 2009.
"And after only two months my mind began to slip," she said.
She was joined at the peaceful protest by Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, who spent more than two years in prison in Iran after being arrested with Shourd, and by former Black Panthers who spoke of a history of problems at the San Quentin prison.
The prison is California's oldest correctional facility and houses the state's only gas chamber and all male inmates on death row, according to the state's prison website.
Activist Barbara Becnel said prisoners were drawing inspiration from the Occupy movement, which spread throughout the nation last fall with calls for greater economic equality. The movement has lost some ground as many U.S. cities evicted protesters from their tent camps.
"We have merged the prison rights movement with the Occupy movement," Becnel said, quoting a message she said came from San Quentin death row prisoner Kevin Cooper. "The 99 percent has to be concerned about the bottom 1 percent."
Marin County Sheriff's Office Sergeant Keith Boyd estimated the crowd numbered 600 to 700 people at its height.
Demonstrators held a moment of silence for Christian Alexander Gomez, 27, who died February 2 while on a hunger strike in California's Corcoran State Prison.
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 in 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.
Watched over by at least a dozen heavily armed prison guards, former prisoners on Monday told stories of their incarceration and sang Native American and civil rights protest songs during the hours-long demonstration.
Police blocked the main freeway exit to the prison and prohibited parking within about three quarters of a mile of the protest site.
There was none of the violence that has marked some of the protests by anti-Wall Street activists in Oakland, the group that organized the demonstration on Monday.
"I'm here for the woman who stole a bottle of vitamins, the woman who stole a jar of Vaseline or a pair of underwear," said former inmate Kelly Turner, referring to those she said were jailed for minor offenses like her own, which landed her in prison for 13 years.
In an interview with Reuters, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton contradicted speakers who said they had been held in isolation while in prison in the state.
"Inmates held in segregated units are not isolated," she said. "Some inmates are single celled. But they converse with other inmates. They can get visits and they interact with staff."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins)