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Dozens of letters from Utah State Prison inmates to the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah have shined more light on what they want from the hunger strike.
Forty-two maximum-security inmates have been on strike since Friday morning. All of them are documented gang members, according to the Utah Department of Corrections, which stated that their list of demands included moving gang leaders to a different part of the prison.
The list of demands also "address issues that in recent months we have been in the process of reviewing and revising, such as our inmate classification system, programming and out-of-cell time in our maximum-security areas," the Utah Department of Correction said in a statement.
Months ago, and again this weekend, the prison informed the inmates of this "work-in-progress," corrections spokeswoman Brooke Adams said Sunday.
The ACLU of Utah says in the last few months it has received letters from about 30 inmates living in unit Uinta 2 detailing their concerns.
The prisoners were concerned about their living conditions, legal director John Mejia said Sunday.
"We have had enough of these squalid living conditions and would like to be treated with respect and dignity, with the opportunity to better ourselves," one prisoner wrote to the ACLU, according to a press release.
They are concerned that they are spending too much time in an extreme level of confinement; that they do not have enough access to rehabilitative programs; that they do not have enough supplies to clean their cells; nor do they have enough protein in their meals, which tend to run late, Mejia listed.
"There are some very extreme conditions that people in Uinta 2 face," Mejia said. "… I think that there was definitely an urgency, that we definitely felt."
But prison officials disagree with how the letter "characterizes aspects of our operations and practices," Adams said. "While we respect the right of these inmates to refuse to eat, we believe there are more positive ways to raise concerns and bring about change."
The Uinta 2 unit houses inmates that require "close custody," which could be for a variety of reasons, Adams said. The inmates there typically spend 21 hours in their cells, she added. She also said there are some inmates who only get an hour and fifteen minutes out of their cells every other day.
In the letters to the ACLU, inmates who are part of the "Special Threat Group" said that they are spending 47 out of every 48 hours in their cells, with a cellmate, Mejia said. Three times a week, both of them are let out for one hour into what Mejia hesitates to call a yard.
"It's not open, it's got four walls and an open ceiling," Mejia said. "Twenty-four hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year… they basically have human contact with one person, their cellmate."
And that way of life is having a detrimental effect on a lot of them, according to their letters.
"This place has heavy social and psychological effects on us, causing social and psychological disorders," another prisoner wrote.
"A lot of them reported that they start to get paranoid,"Mejia said. "They start having a hard time trusting their cellmate, trusting the guards, trusting themselves."
The inmates have also complained that they have inadequate access to cleaning supplies, Mejia said. The inmates have also complained that they lack rehabilitative opportunities such as education and prison work.
"We have nothing in here...how are we supposed to better ourselves when we can't get any programming?" another prisoner wrote.
"They're supposed to be able to earn their way out with good behavior and completing what they can complete… but we've heard from a lot of prisoners that that has not happened for them," Mejia said.
Mejia noted that the food concern is common among prisoners in general.
The prisoners' letters about these concerns have been coming into the ACLU for months. Mejia noted that it's unusual for the advocacy group to receive such a high volume.
Prison officials recently met with the ACLU and two other advocacy groups, invited their input and provided them with an overview of potential changes.
This weekend, the prison gave the striking prisoners the opportunity for a medical evaluation to determine their baseline weight and other vitals. The prison is continuing to offer them three meals a day, and plans to offer another medical check on Monday.
By then, the prisoners' hunger pangs are likely to have passed, according to a California Correctional Health Care Services care guide for fasting inmates. The California correctional system went through a massive hunger strike in 2013, involving thousands of prisoners.
According to the care guide, prisoners now would be entering a phase in which they lose body fat and muscle, and "total body potassium, phosphate and magnesium." Their serum electrolyte levels would be maintained, but "at the expense of their intracellular stores," the care guide reads.
The prison has the legal option to force feed the inmates, but only after a petitioned court hearing.
The strikers' concerns about extreme confinement echoes what the ACLU of Utah has been urging corrections to move away from, particularly with the prospect of a new prison. Some prisons were built at a time when "ideas about extreme isolation [were] more accepted," Mejia said. But nationally, such measures have been falling out of favor with prison systems, he added.
Utah's neighbor to the east, Colorado, is one state that's trying to keep fewer prisoners in extreme isolation. Rick Raemisch, the state's corrections director, spent a night in solitary confinement last year and expressed his concerns about such practices in an op-ed for The New York Times.
"If an inmate acts up, we slam a steel door on him... but by placing a difficult offender in isolation you have not solved the problem only delayed or more likely exacerbated it, not only for the prison, but ultimately for the public," Raemisch wrote. "Our job in corrections is to protect the community, not to release people who are worse than they were when they came in."
It was not immediately clear when, if ever, Utah State Prison has had a hunger strike involving this many inmates.