By Sharon Bernstein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Inmates on a hunger strike to protest California's solitary confinement policies are staving off starvation by drinking Gatorade, but medical troubles are setting in nonetheless, a spokeswoman for the office in charge of prisoner healthcare said on Friday.
Of 123 inmates who are refusing food, 15 have lost potentially dangerous amounts of weight, and most report feeling weak and cold, said Liz Gransee, a spokeswoman for the official who oversees healthcare in the 34-prison system.
"Some of them aren't handling this as well as others," Gransee said. "Some of them have had IV fluids multiple times."
The inmates are participating in the largest and longest hunger strike in recent memory in California over the state's policy of keeping prisoners in near-isolation for years on end. Many are put in solitary confinement because prison officials believe they have gang affiliations.
As of Friday, 41 prisoners have refused food continuously since the hunger strike began on July 8, according to the state. Others have stopped at times and then begun again.
The hunger strike is the latest in a string of difficulties plaguing the California corrections system, which is under court orders to reduce crowding this year. Medical care in the system is under the control of a federally appointed receiver.
A panel of federal judges has threatened to hold Governor Jerry Brown in contempt if he does not act quickly, even if that means releasing thousands of inmates early. Brown wants to spend $315 million next year to lease space in private prisons, county jails and out-of-state lockups.
Under the supervision of the medical receiver, J. Clark Kelso, hunger strikers are monitored daily and examined by prison doctors at least weekly, Gransee said.
Deborah Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the state, said the health and safety of inmates was a priority, and that officials were working closely with the receiver's office to make sure participants receive adequate medical care.
She blamed the strike on gang leaders who she said were coercing other prisoners to participate in the strike. The state changed some of its guidelines for keeping prisoners in isolated conditions after a hunger strike in 2011, but has not budged any further in response to the current action.
VITAMINS AND GATORADE
The California inmates on hunger strike are taking vitamins and the electrolyte-replenishing sports drink Gatorade, which provides up to 625 calories per day and has helped slow the progress of starvation-related illnesses among participants, Gransee said.
A typical 30-year-old man needs between 2400 and 2600 calories per day, depending on his size and activity level. All of the hunger strikers are men.
Gransee said none have lost consciousness or been deemed to be near death so far. Last week, officials won permission from a federal court to force-feed some gravely ill inmates, even if they had signed orders asking not to be resuscitated. So far, however, that power has not been invoked.
Elena Kret-Sudjian, medical director of clinical nutrition at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, said the inmates could still succumb to starvation because the beverages do not contain protein.
"When the body burns fat it always also burns the muscle and it's very dangerous ," Kret-Sudjian said. "When humans lose 40 percent of muscle they will die."
The state has not released figures on how much muscle inmates have lost. Gransee said 13 inmates have lost more than 10 percent of their body weight, and two have lost more than 15 percent of body weight, putting them into a higher risk category.
People can develop long-term medical problems from fasting for as little as one week, Kret-Sudjian said. By the seventh week, starvation symptoms are likely to be advanced. Long-term conditions can include heart disease and neurological problems.
"People may feel initially very irritable, even depressed," she said. "They may have reduced body temperature, be extremely sensitive to cold, or have chronic diarrhea, decreased sex drive and other complications."
The current hunger strike marks the second time in two years that prisoners have refused food over the state's solitary confinement practices. More than 4,000 prisoners are segregated from other inmates, most of them in so-called security housing units where they live in various degrees of isolation.
This strike, however, has gone on more than twice as long as the 2011 action and attracted more prisoners - 30,000 - at its peak.
Hundreds have been treated in prison clinics, hospitals and other facilities since the hunger strike began, Gransee said. Their symptoms have included dehydration, cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness and lightheadedness.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohamad Zargham)