SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California inmates on Thursday ended a 60-day hunger strike after lawmakers said they would review solitary confinement policies that kept dozens of gang leaders and members locked up for more than a decade in tiny, individual cells with little chance of returning to the general population.
A lawyer representing strike leaders at Pelican Bay Prison said they met in the law library Wednesday with other prisoners and voted to end the protest several days after two Democratic lawmakers promised to hold hearings on their complaints.
"They finally felt like somebody was listening to them," lawyer Anne Weills said. "They felt like somebody had their back."
Three of the four strike leaders have been kept in isolation for more than 20 years and the fourth for more than a decade. All four are serving life sentences for murder, have committed a string of assaults while incarcerated, and lead rival prison gangs, officials have said.
The meeting at the prison near the Oregon border came two days after high-ranking prison officials renewed contact with participating prisoners in a 90-minute conference call after steadfastly refusing to negotiate for weeks, Weills said.
More than 30,000 inmates throughout the state prison system had refused meals when the strike began in early July over the isolation units and the indeterminate time periods that some inmates can serve in the harsh conditions.
By this week, the number had dwindled to 100, including 40 who had been on strike continuously since July 8.
The strikers were also protesting the "debriefing" process that inmates in solitary confinement must undergo to return to the general population. Inmates say the procedure is viewed as "snitching" and puts their lives in danger if they agree to discuss what they know about gangs.
It did not appear that any striking inmates suffered serious health problems such as kidney or eye damage that can result from starvation, said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the federal court-appointed official who oversees prison medical care.
The focus now will be on easing inmates back to solid food, she said.
Family members and prison advocates said at a news conference on Thursday that they were still concerned about possible long-term health effects.
A federal judge had given authorities permission to force-feed inmates if necessary to save their lives, but officials did not have to resort to that measure. Even hard-core strikers had been accepting vitamins and electrolyte drinks during their fast.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, and state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, announced on Aug. 30 that they would schedule joint public hearings exploring the prisoners' complaints about the so-called security housing units.
Each lawmaker chairs the Public Safety Committee in their respective chamber, which oversees the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
"I'm relieved to see an honorable end to the hunger strike without getting to the point where people were dying," Ammiano said in a prepared statement.
He said he hopes lawmakers "can bring an end to the disgraceful conditions that triggered the hunger strike."
Hancock said in a statement the "issues raised by the hunger strike are real — concerns about the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California's prisons — and can no longer be ignored."
Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said officials were pleased the strike had been called off before any inmates became seriously ill.
He said his department will continue to carry out changes it began two years ago that involve sending inmates to isolation units designed to discipline inmates who commit crimes in prison, and to keep gang leaders from easily communicating with followers.
The changes include more limits on which inmates are sent to the units at Pelican Bay, where the strike began, and at other prisons. The policies also make it easier for inmates to work their way out of the units.
About 3,600 inmates are housed in the statewide isolation units because of crimes they committed in prison or their designation as leaders of prison gangs.
The units measure 80-square feet, and prisoners are allowed out of the cells for fewer than two hours a day. They are deprived of contact visits, phone calls and many other amenities afforded other prisoners.
Ten of the striking inmates have filed a federal lawsuit alleging the policies and periods in isolation are unconstitutional and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
The lawsuit seeks class action status on behalf of all the prisoners in isolation at Pelican Bay.
"I'm gratified that the hunger strike is over without any loss of life or any serious injury," said Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the lead attorney in the lawsuit.
After consulting with his clients, Lobel credited the two lawmakers for promising the hearings.
"The conditions that caused the hunger strike still exist, still remain to be remedied, hopefully both through the legislative process and through the lawsuit," he said.