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California asks high court to stay order to reduce prison crowding

Prison inmates stand in line as they prepare to dance in opposition of violence against women as they participate in a One Billion Rising ev
Prison inmates stand in line as they prepare to dance in opposition of violence against women as they participate in a One Billion Rising ev

By Sharon Bernstein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California officials petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday to release the most populous state from a court order demanding it reduce its prison population by about 10,000 inmates this year to ease crowding.

The state's application to high court Justice Anthony Kennedy says conditions have improved in the 33-prison system in recent years, despite federal court rulings that overcrowding caused problems with mental health and medical care for inmates.

The move is part of an ongoing feud between Governor Jerry Brown and a panel of three federal judges over conditions in a state prison system that has also been plagued by hunger strikes and occasional violence.

"California has now diverted tens of thousands of low-risk inmates from state prison to local authorities ..., expanded good time credits for certain classes of inmates ..., and eliminated any need to use gymnasiums and day rooms for anything other than their intended purposes," Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris wrote.

Their filing requests a stay of a recent order by a panel of federal judges to bring prisons to 137.5 percent of capacity this year - an order that would require California to either find new facilities for about 10,000 inmates or let them go.

California's prisons currently hold about 50 percent more inmates than they were meant to house. In 2009, after years of litigation, a panel of three federal judges ruled that the institutions can hold more inmates than they were built to house, but set a specific cap.

Increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of the state's response, the three judges - Stephen Reinhardt, Lawrence Karlton and Thelton Henderson - have twice threatened Brown with contempt of court. In 2011, the Supreme Court backed up the federal judges, saying the state had to reduce crowding.

The state is now making its case again to the high court even as new attention is being focused on conditions in California prisons, with 29,000 inmates refusing meals in the third day of a self-declared hunger strike.

The hunger strike, which will not be recognized by the state until the inmates have missed nine consecutive meals, is being carried out to protest conditions in California's four highest security lockups, where inmate advocates complain some prisoners are housed in isolation for years on end.

The inmates are protesting what they say is the state's failure to improve conditions in the units, where prisoners lack human contact even during the 10 hours per week that they are allowed out of their cells for exercise, said Carol Strickman, an attorney who represents some of the hunger strikers in a lawsuit.

Prisoners receive their meals through a slot in their cell doors, and the food has included moldy bread and sour milk, Strickman said.

This is the third and largest hunger strike staged by inmates over solitary confinement in the last two years.

State officials deny the inmates' claims, saying that some prisoners have cellmates and all are allowed access to the yard and to a law library.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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