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Appalling conditions

A woman holds up a sign during a protest against indefinite solitary confinement in California prisons, in SacramentoSAN FRANCISCO — Amnesty International weighed in on a 22-day-old hunger strike in California prisons yesterday, calling solitary confinement conditions faced by protesting inmates an “affront to human rights” and urging an impartial probe into the death of a prisoner.

Billy Sell, 32, serving a life term for attempted murder, was found hanged in his cell July 22 in the “security housing unit” — for prisoners held in solitary confinement — at the Corcoran State Prison in central California.

The local coroner preliminarily ruled his death a suicide by strangulation, prison officials said. They added there was no evidence that Sell’s participation in the hunger strike, which the corrections department initially denied, had been a factor.

According to inmate advocates, however, fellow prisoners reported Sell had been requesting medical attention for several days before his death, though a spokeswoman for a federal receiver overseeing state prison healthcare denied Sell was refused medical treatment.

In a statement issued late on Monday, corrections officials acknowledged that Sell had been on a hunger strike from at least July 11 — by which time he already had missed nine straight meals — until July 21, the day before his death.

They also said Sell was awaiting trial on murder charges and facing the death penalty if convicted in the 2007 strangulation and stabbing death of a cell mate. A source close to the corrections probe said he hung himself with a bed sheet.

Several entities at the state, federal and local level are reviewing the circumstances surrounding Sell’s death, which inmate advocates say was preventable and points to inhumane conditions that protesting inmates claim to suffer.

The global human rights group Amnesty International joined inmate supporters from the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition in calling for an independent inquiry into the death, one that is thoroughly transparent and without government ties.

“Conditions for prisoners in solitary confinement in California are an affront to human rights and must end,” Thenjiwe McHarris of Amnesty said in a statement. “No human being should be held under the deplorable conditions we have witnessed in California prisons for prolonged periods, even decades.” (Reuters)

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