By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The number of California prison inmates on hunger strike to protest against conditions in some high security units fell off sharply on Friday, prison officials said a day after they warned prisoners that strikers could face disciplinary action.
The striking inmates, some of whom are also refusing work assignments, are protesting what prisoner advocates describe as inhumane confinement practices, which can include locking inmates in isolated cells for up to 23 hours a day.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed that 7,667 inmates in 24 prisons and one out-of-state unit had missed nine consecutive meals, the benchmark used by the state's prison system for recognizing a hunger strike.
That is well below the 12,421 inmates out of a total prison population of more than 130,000 that officials had confirmed were striking on Thursday in an what the Los Angeles Times said marked the largest prison hunger strike in California history.
California prison officials have threatened to impose disciplinary measures on inmates who take part in what the prison system has termed as illegal "mass disruptions."
Officials have not specified what privileges could be taken away from inmates, but on Friday they said visitors would be allowed into state prisons as usual this weekend. They said the prison system was not negotiating with the strikers.
"We're not going to be put into a situation where we're going to be held hostage by convicted felons," said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the corrections department. She said the department "has been maintaining open dialogue with inmates and their representatives."
The strike comes at a tense time for the prison system in the most populous U.S. state. It has been ordered by a panel of federal judges to reduce the number of inmates by 10,000 this year to ease crowding.
SECURITY HOUSING UNITS IN FOCUS
The Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity group says prisoners want an end to long-term confinement, or isolation, in the so-called Security Housing Units and modifications to the procedure for determining who should be housed there, among other demands.
California holds 4,527 inmates isolated from the general prison population in those units because prison officials found they had committed crimes behind bars or have gang affiliations, according to Thornton.
The corrections department has said the current strike was led by prison gangs and that hunger strikes, work stoppages and other disruptions could potentially affect safety and security behind bars.
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity spokesman Isaac Ontiveros, said he believed more inmates were taking part in the hunger strike than was officially acknowledged but could not provide his own estimate.
"I think the CDCR has an investment in breaking the strike, that they would have an interest in lowballing numbers and blaming the strikers' peaceful protest instead of responding to their demands," Ontiveros said, adding that he would assess numbers after relatives of prisoners visit inmates this weekend.
Carol Strickman, a prisoners' rights attorney who represents some of the hunger strikers in a lawsuit against the state, has said inmates were frustrated that after two widely publicized hunger strikes in 2011, the state had only minimally changed its procedures for solitary confinement.
One 2011 strike over similar issues involved 6,500 inmates at its peak.
Thornton has denied prisoners in the Security Housing Units were totally isolated, saying some had cellmates and that they were allowed yard privileges at least 11 hours a week. Inmates also have access to a law library and cable TV, she said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)