Last month, inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison launched a hunger strike to draw attention to their complaints of being unfairly held in extreme isolation at the Crescent City lockup.
Within three weeks, the prison hunger strike had become one of the largest in years, spreading throughout the state corrections system to involve thousands of inmates and sparking a legislative hearing scheduled for next week.
"We had up to 6,000 (prisoners taking part), including about 300 in Mississippi in our out-of-state facility half the country away, participating in this," said corrections spokesman Oscar Hidalgo.
When officials tried to tamp down the protest by moving 17 hunger strike leaders to the state prison in Corcoran, the inmate action spread.
"As soon as they got down to Corcoran, an additional 300 inmates at that institution went on the hunger strike," Hidalgo said.
The effort ended July 21, after inmates inside the security housing unit at Pelican Bay were promised changes, including being given wool caps for use during winter months and being allowed to have wall calendars.
Officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also said they will review policies on how the agency determines which inmates are believed to be gang leaders who are then placed in a security housing unit.
But they insist that inmates inside the SHU, including several who have identified themselves as leaders of the hunger strike, pose a serious threat to others and are there for very good reasons.
The state's security housing units were designed as prisons within prisons to house the most dangerous criminals. While SHU inmates are largely isolated from other prisoners, corrections officials say, they still have certain amenities available to them.
"They have 23 channels, including ESPN," Hidalgo said. "I think that's something that's far from extreme isolation from the rest of the world."
The Assembly's Public Safety Committee has set a hearing for Tuesday on how the corrections agency handles prisoners inside its three security housing units. The panel expects to hear testimony from corrections officials, as well as a former inmate in Pelican Bay's SHU.
Advocates for the inmates contend they are denied basic human rights, are kept in windowless cells, and that corrections officials wrongly label some inmates as gang leaders and banish them to the security housing unit.
They see the seemingly minor concessions made to end the hunger strike as a major step forward for prisoners.
"Those things are more substantial to them than they may seem to those of us outside prison, who can take such things for granted," said Isaac Ontiveros, a spokesman for Critical Resistance, an Oakland organization that supported the hunger strikers.
"I think overall what's important is that they were able to move CDCR at all," he added. "The CDCR almost prides itself on being immovable, that it does not negotiate."
Corrections officials maintain that prisoners in an SHU have access to medical and dental care, as well as to other inmates and time outside. They contend the hunger strike spread in part because inmates were intimidated into joining it by the very nature of its leaders.
"Those who were rallying the protesters are some very dangerous individuals that have earned their way into the (SHU) by violent behavior in prison," Hidalgo said. "Collectively among this group, they have stabbed a number of inmates and they've assaulted a number of our staff.
"These are not inmates that we can just let roam the general population."
For instance, among those who have been identified on inmate-advocate websites as leading the effort is a prisoner serving a 21-years-to-life sentence for second-degree murder with a record of four escapes, five inmate stabbings and four assaults on prison staff members.
Another is serving 26 years to life on a first-degree murder conviction and has a record that includes two escapes, three inmate stabbings and three other assaults on inmates, corrections records show.
Hidalgo said the inmates have developed "extremely coordinated and vast methods of communication" through the use of smuggled cellphones or contact with messengers on the outside who pass on their orders to other inmates.
He added that 3,800 of the state's roughly 144,000 inmates are housed in one of three security housing units, and that keeping them there allows officials "to control our prisons in a safe environment rather than allow some predatory-type inmates to run a yard and intimidate other inmates."
Still, the hunger strike spawned media interest worldwide, and the corrections department found itself on the defensive against critical coverage.
On Wednesday, it offered the media a tour of Pelican Bay, and CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate wrote a letter challenging a New York Times editorial that labeled the security housing units as "cruel isolation."
The result is that advocates believe they now have an opening to focus more attention on the treatment of inmates, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California earlier this year to reduce overcrowding in prisons.
"Is their logic that these guys are monsters and so therefore we don't have to address or correct any of the conditions of their confinement?" Ontiveros asked. "The Supreme Court just said no to that logic."