By Sharon Bernstein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - About 29,000 California prison inmates refused meals on Tuesday to protest what prisoner advocates say are inhumane conditions in the state's highest-security lockups, where inmates are housed in isolated cells for up to 23 hours per day.
The coordinated action, which began on Monday throughout the massive state prison system over issues in four Security Housing Units, was the latest sign of difficulty in the correctional system in the most populous U.S. state.
"There's a core group of us who are committed to taking this all the way to the death if necessary," said Todd Ashker, a prisoner in California's Pelican Bay State Prison whose voice was featured in a video about the action posted on the website of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group.
"None of us want to do this, but we feel like we have no other option," he said.
Officials confirmed that the inmates had skipped meals, but said the action could not be defined as a hunger strike until nine meals had been missed, a benchmark that was unlikely to come until Wednesday or Thursday.
California is under court orders to reduce its prison population by about 10,000 inmates this year to ease crowding in a system that has been plagued by hunger strikes and occasional violence.
The state has already begun housing many low-level prisoners in county jails. Governor Jerry Brown has been feuding with federal judges over demands the state continue to reduce inmate numbers.
As a result of the cases underlying the court order, medical care in the prisons is under the supervision of a court-appointed receiver, and mental healthcare is watched by a specialist.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton said more than 30,000 of California's 132,800 inmates missed breakfast and lunch on Monday, slightly more than on Tuesday. She could not say how many skipped dinner.
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity said prisoners wanted an end to long-term confinement, or isolation, in the Security Housing Units and modifications to the procedure for determining who should be housed there, among other demands.
Thornton said the demands were the same as in 2011, when Ashker was among the leaders of a hunger strike that resulted in changes in the way the state assigns inmates to the facilities.
GANG TIES OR CRIMES BEHIND BARS
The state has 4,527 inmates in the Security Housing Units, some for committing crimes while incarcerated and others after being identified as gang members. Those who commit crimes behind bars are kept in the units for up to five years, while gang members are kept there indeterminately, she said.
Conditions in the units have long been the focus of human rights activists, who say that inmates are being harmed by lack of social interaction.
Over the past year, the state has reassessed its criteria for keeping inmates in the units, transferring or preparing to transfer 208 to other facilities and placing another 115 in what Thornton called "step-down programs."
Thornton denied that prisoners in the Security Housing Units were isolated, saying some had cellmates, and that they were allowed yard privileges at least 11 hours per week. Inmates also have access to a law library and cable TV, she said.
"The purpose of it is to segregate inmates who pose a safety risk to other people or to the institution," Thornton said. "We don't call it isolation. We don't call it any of this terminology that's bantered about."
California has specific medical guidelines to deal with hunger strikes, said Elizabeth Gransee, a spokeswoman for J. Clark Kelso, the receiver overseeing prison medical care.
Once the state recognizes the action as a hunger strike after nine meals are missed, participants will be told that refusing to eat can be fatal and advised about the risks.
The state does not force-feed inmates unless they become unconscious and have not signed a directive refusing care, Gransee said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara)