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Thousands of Calif. inmates refuse food in protest

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Republican state lawmakers tour Folsom prison in 2007 (AP/Brian Baer)

A group of inmates in a high-security California prison have started a hunger strike to protest their near-solitary confinement. Since the protest began on July 1, it has spread to thousands of inmates throughout the state prison system.

At its peak, 6,600 prisoners in 11 prisons were refusing food, but officials told the New York Times that number was down to 1,700 yesterday.

A handful of inmates who live in Pelican Bay State Prison's windowless, sound-proof 6-foot-by-10-foot isolation cells say they are ready to remain on the hunger strike until they die, or until officials at the facility agree to their demands. Gang members in the prison are often placed in the isolation wing so they can't influence the rest of the inmate population. Once they're sequestered in the high-security cells, the gang members are asked to turn over information on other gang members, in a procedure called "debriefing." The prisoners say they want debriefing to end, and they also want an end to long-term solitary confinement.

"They think the debrief process is illegal--that we pressure them to get out of gangs--but I'd say we encourage them to do so," state prisons spokeswoman Terry Thornton told The San Francisco Chronicle. "Being in a gang is not good for them, and it's not good for the public safety, either."

The Supreme Court ruled in May that California's prisons are so overcrowded that they violate inmates' constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Inadequate medical care produced "needless suffering and death," the justices said. The court ordered the system to shed one-fourth of its prisoner population over the next two years.

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