Nearly two months after they began rejecting food to protest California's use of solitary confinement, inmates have ended their hunger strike.
As of Wednesday, 100 inmates were still refusing to eat, according to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Dana Simas. But that changed when the evening meal arrived.
"The hunger strike was orchestrated by four leaders at Pelican Bay, so something may have come down from there, but all of the inmates began eating last night," Simas said Thursday morning.
The protest marked the third time in the last two years that inmates have sought to bring public attention to what they call cruel and excessive housing of inmates in tiny, windowless cells known as the Security Housing Unit, or SHU.
Inmates halted their strike amid what advocates described as signs of a shifting landscape - lawmakers announcing hearings and Michael Stainer, a corrections official, committing to meeting with strike leaders later this month.
"Things have not changed in terms of their conditions, but they have changed in terms of the political environment," Barbara Becnel, a member of the hunger strikers' mediation team, said in a conference call with reporters.
Corrections officials defend the SHU as a tool for separating dangerous, prison-gang-affiliated inmates from the general prison population. Simas said CDCR has not altered its solitary-confinement policies in response to this strike, but said officials had already "met and exceeded" inmate demands by offering a way out of the SHU for inmates willing to renounce gang activity.
By ending their protest, inmates averted potential force-feedings. Corrections officials had won federal approval to feed inmates who are hovering on the edge of death, even if those inmates continued to reject nourishment.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who has joined Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, in convening hearings on solitary confinement, said in an interview that he hoped the hearings would yield legislation affecting how prisons assign inmates to the SHU, including the process by which inmates are linked to prison gangs.
Ammiano said the corrections department's policy changes after previous hunger strikes were cosmetic and that department Secretary Jeffrey Beard's response to the hunger strike "seemed simplistic."
"I'm relieved, because we didn't want anyone to die or seriously hurt themselves, so that anxiety is removed," Ammiano said, "but now it's time to move forward and see what are the root causes that cause people to do this."
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543. Follow him on Twitter @CapitolAlert.