Stifling prison unit prompts hunger strike

Last modified: 7/16/2010 12:00:00 AM
A dozen inmates housed at the state prison's most secure unit have refused to eat their last nine meals, launching a hunger strike to protest temperatures inside their concrete and steel cells, prison officials said yesterday.

Department of Corrections spokesman Jeff Lyons said the inmates have told prison guards they will not eat until fans are installed in their rooms or nearby hallways.

Inmates were allowed to have fans before the recent string of hot weather but lost the privilege amid safety concerns, Lyons said.

'Many of the inmates were tearing them apart and fashioning them into weapons,' Lyons said.

The protest started Sunday with about 30 inmates, according to Kathy Green, whose daughter's fiance is an inmate. She said some inmates have resorted to flooding their cells with an inch or two of water to cool themselves.

'These guys are sitting over there in pure sweat,' she said.

All of the inmates who are taking part in the hunger strike are being kept in the Secure Housing Unit at the state prison in Concord, Lyons said. Originally built in 1878, the prison has a number of different levels of security for inmates. SHU, built in the 1980s, is for the 100 most dangerous and uncontrollable inmates, Lyons said.

'Hunger strikes happen from time to time in that unit, and we manage it,' Lyons said. 'Our history has shown that hunger strikes are fairly short-lived.'

Lyons said the inmates can only be force-fed if a court determines their hunger strike is life-threatening. In the meantime, prison officials are keeping track of how many meals the inmates skip and whether they are drinking fluids.

Inmates in SHU cannot open windows and must remain in their cells, usually alone, for 23 hours a day. Unlike inmates in the prison's general population, they also can't go outside.

Green, who lives in Pittsfield, said the heat has become unbearable for some inmates.

'They refuse to give them any type of air ventilation over there,' she said. 'They are not asking for fans in cell, they want fans in the unit to move air around.'

She said her daughter's fiance asked guards for a fan in the hallway earlier this week but was told the guards also have to work in the heat.

'They said they aren't giving up until they get some air in there or they pass out and get taken somewhere with air,' Green said. 'It's going to boil over to all those inmates flipping out over there and starting a riot.'

Green said she would not disclose the name of her daughter's fiance over fears that he might be transferred away from Concord.

Attorney Mike Sheehan, who met with a client at SHU this month, said the air inside the prison was stuffy and muggy.

'I'm terrible at guessing a temperature, it was just terribly uncomfortable,' he said. 'It's a concrete building with no (air conditioning) and after two weeks of this stuff, it has got to be miserable.'

Sheehan said inmates have vents in their rooms but those sometimes do not work. Lyons said they are working this week. He said there are no plans to add air conditioning to the unit, especially with the department's electricity bill already topping out at about $6 million a year.

'Both the staff and the inmates work and live in the environment, and we do the best we can to manage it based on the aging infrastructure,' Lyons said. 'Everyone would like to have a climate-controlled building, but I think it's cost prohibitive for us to do that at this time.'

Lyons said prison staff will continue to monitor the hunger strike.

Trent Spiner can be reached at 369-3306 or tspiner@cmonitor.com.




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