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As new hunger strike begins, prison officials investigate advocates

Michael Montgomery/California WatchThe current prison hunger strike is being led by inmates housed in Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit.

Just days after thousands of California inmates renewed a hunger strike, two Bay Area attorneys closely involved in mediation efforts got a surprise: They were under investigation by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for allegations of misconduct and unspecified security threats.

The attorneys – Marilyn McMahon, executive director of California Prison Focus, and Carol Strickman of Legal Services for Prisoners With Children – have been banned from state institutions until the investigation is resolved, according to temporary exclusion orders signed by Corrections Undersecretary Scott Kernan on Sept. 29.

The investigation will determine whether the attorneys “violated the laws and policies governing the safe operations of institutions within the CDCR,” the order states.

The document does not provide details about the allegations. It cites a section from the California Code of Regulations that reads:

"Committing an act that jeopardizes the life of a person, violates the security of the facility, constitutes a misdemeanor or a felony, or is a reoccurrence of previous violations shall result in a one-year to lifetime exclusion depending on the severity of the offense in question."

Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton confirmed the department had banned "some specific attorneys" from one facility for alleged misconduct. She declined further comment, citing an ongoing investigation.

The move is another indication that the corrections department intends to handle the current protest differently from an earlier hunger strike, which ended July 20 after officials agreed to some concessions, including a review of policies governing the state’s controversial Security Housing Units, where some inmates have spent decades housed alone in windowless cells.

Since then, strike leaders have accused corrections officials of failing to carry out their promises.

“CDCR has responded with more propaganda, lies and vague double-talk of promises of change in time," reads a statement from the leaders posted on an advocacy website. The inmates vowed to continue the protest indefinitely, “until actual changes are implemented.”

But corrections officials say they’ve kept their commitments and claim the protests are the work of dangerous gang leaders.

“Unlike in the first instance where we certainly evaluated their concerns and thought there was some merit to it, this instance appears to be more manipulative, and it certainly has the possibility of being a real disruption to the Department of Corrections and the security of its staff and inmates,” Kernan said.

A memo signed by Kernan and distributed to inmates Sept. 29 warned the department was treating the new hunger strike as a “mass disturbance” and said any prisoner who joined the protest would be subject to disciplinary action. 

General-population inmates identified as strike leaders will be locked in special segregation units normally used as punishment for major rules violations, according to the memo.

Strickman and McMahon have been involved in extensive discussions with corrections officials, including Kernan, and leaders of the strike, who are housed in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit.

Neither attorney was available for comment.

Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, condemned the sanctions against the attorneys and said he expected the department would place similar restrictions on other advocates in order to further isolate leaders of the hunger strike.

“They’re trying to move us out of the way,” he said.

Nearly 3,400 inmates at six prisons have refused state-issued meals for three consecutive days, according to the most recent data from the corrections department.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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