SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – A California inmate has died in solitary confinement amid a system-wide hunger strike protesting living conditions in those cells, prison activists announced.
Prison officials said Saturday that they are investigating Monday’s death at California State Prison, Corcoran as a possible suicide. They are awaiting the Kings County coroner’s report before making a final determination on the cause of death.
The coroner didn’t return a phone call seeking comment on Saturday.
Inmate supporters and prison officials disagree over whether 32-year-old Bill “Guero” Sell was participating in the strike. Prison officials said he wasn’t. Activists supporting the hunger strike from outside prison say otherwise.
“It’s irresponsible and inflammatory for hunger strike supporters to say this inmate, whose death is being investigated as a suicide, died as a result of the hunger strike,” Deborah Hoffman, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in a statement. “The inmate was not participating in the hunger strike at the time of his death.”
Sell was serving a life sentence for attempted murder. He was awaiting trial for the murder of a cell mate.
The hunger strike is 20 days old. About 1,000 inmates at 11 prisons are still refusing to eat state-issued food after 30,000 inmates refused meals in the first days of the hunger strike.
Prison officials said 42 inmates have sought treatment in prison infirmaries for health problems related to the strike. One inmate on the hunger strike had to be taken to an outside hospital for a night, said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for a federal judge put in charge of the prison system’s medical care.
Ronald Ahnen, one of seven “mediators,” who is attempting to negotiate with state officials on behalf of the prisoners said Gov. Jerry Brown and prison administrators are refusing to engage the prisoners.
“They had a chance to negotiate, but have refused to discuss the situation at all,” Ahnen said. “Obviously, the longer the strike continues, the chances increased that something like this was going to happen.”
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.
The protest is the latest disruption for a prison system already facing legal and logistical challenges.
Officials are struggling to move about 2,600 inmates from two Central Valley prisons because they are considered especially vulnerable to a potentially fatal airborne fungus. They also are appealing a separate court order requiring the state to release nearly 10,000 inmates by year’s end to reduce prison crowding as the best way to improve conditions for sick and mentally ill inmates.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.