By Sharon Bernstein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - More than 2,500 prisoners in 17 prisons in California remained on hunger strike on Monday, more than a week after refusing food to demand an end to a policy of housing prisoners believed to be associated with gangs in near-isolation for years on end.
The hunger strike is the third - and largest - in a year over solitary confinement in California prisons, where some inmates are kept in isolation cells for up to 23 hours per day, and are also alone when they are allowed out for an hour of exercise.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the number of prisoners taking part in the protest had dwindled considerably since July 8, when 30,000 prisoners began refusing meals, but 2,572 were still on hunger strike on Monday.
The current protest over solitary confinement comes at a time when California's prison system is also under public scrutiny for overcrowding.
The state is required by a court order to release up to 10,000 inmates early or find other ways to ease overcrowding and has been ordered to move thousands of inmates at risk for a fungal condition known as Valley Fever from the state's San Joaquin Valley.
Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections, said the hunger strike was a violation of state law and that there were reports of inmates being coerced into participating.
"The inmates that are directing this are leaders of prison gangs," he said.
Carol Strickman, a lawyer working with several inmates involved in the hunger strike, rejected this.
She said the number of prisoners still refusing food a week into the action was considerably higher than during the last hunger strike, in October 2012.
That protest, which involved about 12,000 prisoners at its peak, dwindled to 1,300 participants on its eighth day, she said.
Strickman said prison rights advocates would not get a chance to meet with hunger strikers until Tuesday, so few details were available about their health.
The prisoners have been demanding an end to a policy of keeping hundreds of prisoners in near or total isolation for years on end in so-called Security Housing Units, simply because they have been associated with a gang.
They also want officials to stop requiring prisoners who want to be released from the units to undergo debriefings in which they are expected to finger gang associates. They have also demanded improvements in the quality of food in the units.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Brunnstrom)