Almost 30,000 California prisoners were in the second day of a hunger strike Tuesday protesting prison conditions and indefinite solitary confinement, far more than took part in a similar strike two years ago, state officials said.
Relatives of some of the inmates, who comprise almost a quarter of the state's 120,000 prisoners, said in a video posted on a website supporting the strike that they are out of options to end indefinite solitary confinement for inmates with ties to prison gangs, which they call state-sanctioned torture.
"The last time I was able to touch my brother was 1982," Marie Levin, who says her brother has been in solitary confinement for 29 years, says in the video, which was posted by Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, a coalition of prisoners rights activist groups:
"There's a core group of us who are committed to taking this all the way to the death, if necessary," Todd Ashker, an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, says in the video. "None of us want to do this, but we feel like we have no other option."
So far, there have been no reports of violence.
The protests began in 2011 at maximum-security Pelican Bay and have resumed intermittently during contentious periods of negotiation with prison system officials. The latest strike — which would be the largest in state history — began Monday morning.
The coalition said it was organizing a protest at César Chavez Park in Corcoran, south of Fresno, on Saturday. Representatives of one of the groups, Critical Resistance, met Tuesday with attorneys at Pelican Bay.
The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it doesn't recognize hunger strikes until inmates have missed nine straight meals. Through Tuesday afternoon, the strikers had skipped five.
"There are numerous constructive positive ways to bring their concerns forth," Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the department, told NBC station KIEM of Eureka.
"But engaging in a mass hunger strike — coercing other inmates maybe to do that, too — you know, the disruption it can cause from a work stoppage, the department does not condone that."