In response to a renewed inmate hunger strike to protest conditions in the California prison system, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has taken a hard line, threatening participants with disciplinary action and banning two lawyers who represent the strikers. According to the Contra Costa Times:

Prison officials are investigating the two lawyers for “alleged misconduct,” said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Letters faxed Friday to San Francisco lawyer Carol Strickman of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and Berkeley lawyer Marilyn McMahon of California Prison Focus said they were banned from inmate visits as the department investigated whether they had “jeopardized the safety and security” of the prisons.

Both women have been active advocates for the rights of prisoners at Pelican State Bay Prison, the Crescent City supermax facility at the epicenter of the hunger strike this week and another one in July.

“It’s under investigation. I really can’t comment any further on that,” Thornton said.

California Watch reports that the attorneys were banned under “temporary exclusion orders” that were signed by Corrections Undersecretary Scott Kernan on September 29. The order states that an investigation is underway to determine whether the lawyers “violated the laws and policies governing the safe operations of institutions within the CDCR.” While not providing specific allegations, the document cites a section of the California Code of Regulations: “Committing an act that jeopardizes the life of a person, violates the security of the facility, constitutes a misdemeanor or a felony, or is a reoccurrence of previous violations shall result in a one-year to lifetime exclusion depending on the severity of the offense in question.”

According to California Watch, Department of Corrections spokesperson Terry Thornton “confirmed the department had banned ‘some specific attorneys’ from one facility for alleged misconduct. She declined further comment, citing an ongoing investigation.”

Shortly after it banned the lawyers, the CDCR issued a memo to all striking prisoners, informing them that “the department will not condone organized inmate  disturbances.” The memo indicated that disciplinary action could be taken against inmates participating in the hunger strike, and that those identified as leaders could be placed in isolation in a Security Housing Unit. The memo did not state what might be done to those strike leaders already locked in solitary in the Pelican Bay SHU, where the strike originated.

The current hunger strike, according to inmate organizers, is not a new protest but rather a renewal of the three-week strike that began on July 1. That strike ended after prison officials agreed to some limited concessions, including a review of the policies by which prisoners are placed and held in indefinite solitary confinement in the state’s SHUs. The initial hunger strike also resulted in a hearing in the California Assembly on the treatment of inmates in the SHUs, where thousands of inmates languish in 22- to 23-hour-a-day in isolation in windowless cells, some for 10 years, 20 years, or more.

According statement issued in mid-September, strike leaders in the Pelican Bay SHU saw little indication or promise of real change:

As of September 2011, these SHU-prisoners continue to be subjected to CDCR’s torturous human rights violations, in spite of the July 2011 peaceful protest via hunger strike, wherein thousands of prisoners of all races/groups united in their effort to bring mainstream exposure and force an end to such barbarous policies and practices. [CDCR has responded with more propaganda, lies, and vague double talk promises of change in time].

SHU prisoners are dissatisfied with CDCR’s response to their formal complaint and (5) core demands, and therefore will continue to resist via peaceful protest indefinitely, until actual changes are implemented.

The state is clearly taking an even harder line on this round of the hunger strike. Scott Kernan told California Watch: “Unlike in the first instance where we certainly evaluated their concerns and thought there was some merit to it, this instance appears to be more manipulative, and it certainly has the possibility of being a real disruption to the Department of Corrections and the security of its staff and inmates.”

Last week, the CDCR stated that close to 3,400 inmates at six prisons were participating in the hunger strike, which the department defines as refusing state-issued meals for three consecutive days. according to the most recent data from the corrections department. On Saturday, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity reported that “numbers released by the federal receiver’s office” that monitors health care in California prisons “show that on September 28th, nearly 12,000 prisoners were on hunger strike, including California prisoners who are housed in out of state prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma…Prisoners are currently on strike in Pelican Bay State Prison, Calipatria, Centinela, Corcoran, Ironwood State Prison, Kern Valley State Prison, North Kern State Prison, and Salinas Valley State Prison. Throughout the last week prisoners at California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Pleasant Valley State Prison, San Quentin as well as West Valley Detention Center in San Bernardino County were participating.”

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