SACRAMENTO (AP) — Celebrities including Jay Leno and Gloria Steinem have condemned the isolation of inmates to control gang violence at California prisons — a practice that sparked a hunger strike by hundreds of inmates.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Coyote and Noam Chomsky also signed a letter sent Monday to Gov. Jerry Brown that calls isolation units "extensions of the same inhumanity practiced at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay," the Los Angeles Times reported.
Raitt performed once at San Quentin and it "made a profound impact on her," spokeswoman Annie Heller-Gutwillig told the paper.
Families of some of the inmates being held in isolation also held a demonstration outside the state Capitol on Tuesday, where they said they delivered a petition to Brown bearing 41,000 signatures calling for an end to solitary confinement.
Meanwhile, prisoners continued a three-week-old hunger strike. Prison officials on Monday said 385 inmates have refused to eat since July 8, while 176 more are on shorter protests.
More than 50 prisoners have needed medical care.
This is the third hunger strike launched since 2011 to protest living conditions in the prison's security housing units, where 4,500 gang members, gang associates and serious offenders are held in extreme isolation, many of them for indeterminate terms of more than 10 years.
The protesters are demanding an end to indeterminate sentences and for alternative ways to leave the units other than "debriefing," which the prisoners say is an agreement to inform on gang members and a risk to their safety from reprisals for "snitching."
The security housing units at Pelican Bay Prison in Northern California are the subject of a lawsuit alleging that the living conditions — which include confinement to the cells for 23 hours a day and very little contact with other people — amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
Isolation units "serve a vital role in state prisons, keeping staff and other inmates safe from the same violent gangs leading the hunger strike and terrorizing communities across California," state corrections spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said.
Meanwhile, prison officials are investigating a death of a former hunger striker. Corcoran Prison inmate Billy Sell was pronounced dead last week after he was found in his security housing unit.
Kings County coroner's officials ruled that his death was a suicide by strangulation.
Corrections officials said that Sell had been on a hunger strike but he had resumed eating before his suicide.