An estimated 30,000 inmates in two dozen California jails began a hunger strike on Monday to protest solitary confinement and other prison conditions they believe amount to torture.
The protest — the biggest of its kind in California history — was organized by a group of inmates at Pelican Bay state prison, which is located near the Oregon border. The group said they will starve unless the California Department of Correstedion and Rehabilition, or CDRC, will agree to meaningful negotiations.
Advocacy groups say the inmates staged the protest after talks with prison officials about the long-term solitary confinement, which can last for decades, broke down.
In April a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by 10 prisoners at Pelican Bay in which they claimed their isolation unites were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.
Terry Downton, of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said long-term solitary can cause psychological harm to prisoners and also increases violence.
“After 15 days in isolation the chemistry of the brain begins to change … leading to increasing rates of hallucinations, paranoia and self-mutilation," Downton told The Guardian. "It has become a default management tool rather than a tool of last resort.”
Dolores Canales, co-founder of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, said the protest is bringing together inmates of all races.
“It’s phenomenal," Canales said. "They are coming together because they know in unity is where ultimate victory lies. The mood is hopeful, but this also shows how hard things are. They are sacrificing the one thing that is given to them to keep them alive.”
Canales said family members of the incarcerated are also joining the strike.
The protest has reportedly been planned for months. About 30,000 of 133,000 inmates participated in the strike, and 2,000 also refused to go to jobs or attend classes Tuesday.
“Thus we are presently out of alternative options for achieving the long overdue reform to this system and, specifically, an end to state-sanctioned torture, and now we have to put our lives on the line via indefinite hunger strike to force CDCR to do what’s right,” said protest organizers from Pelican Bay in a June 20 letter. “We are certain that we will prevail … the only questions being: How many will die starvation-related deaths before state officials sign the agreement? The world is watching!”