This post has been updated.
Department of Corrections Director Harold Clarke said in a statement Red Onion State Prison officials are monitoring the seven inmates who have refused nine consecutive meals as of Friday.
Clarke said the state does not consider the situation a hunger strike unless an inmate misses nine consecutive meals or declares he is on strike verbally or in writing. Once a strike is confirmed, medical staff begin monitoring.
On Tuesday, prison officials declined to comment on the hunger strike. Late Thursday, they issued a statement but immediately asked for it to be recalled. On Friday afternoon, Clarke made his first statement.
About four dozen prisoners began a hunger strike Tuesday morning, demanding an end to what they call poor conditions, ongoing abuse and the practice of solitary confinement, according to attorneys and groups that represent the inmates. They said Friday that more than seven were still on the strike and had lost privileges, including showers and recreation. Clarke said that the number was much lower and that only 15 prisoners had refused their morning meal Tuesday.
Nearly 500 inmates at Red Onion spend 23 hours a day in a cell, don't shower daily and have limited recreation. Some prisoners, including those with mental illnesses, have been kept in isolation for years, inmates and lawyers say.
State officials said in March that they would implement sweeping changes to Red Onion this year as part of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's four-year plan to help prisoners reenter society. But the inmates say changes are not coming quickly enough.
A coalition of groups, dubbed Solidarity with Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers, sent a letter with 10 demands to McDonnell (R) and Sens. James Webb and Mark R. Warner, both Democrats.
“ROSP has always operated constitutionally and has protected the 8th amendment rights of all offenders,’’ Clarke wrote Friday. “The facility is operated as similar facilities in other states, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons. ROSP has been accredited by the American Correctional Association since 2000 and has been recognized for meeting national correctional standards.”
The hunger strike comes months after a group of lawmakers visited the remote Southwest Virginia prison and called on officials to curb the use of solitary confinement, especially for the mentally ill.
The prisoners’ demands include an end to indefinite segregation -- the word the state uses for isolation -- as well as fully cooked meals, monthly haircuts and an outside review of the facility.
Some members of the Virginia General Assembly and human rights groups have asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the use of solitary confinement at Red Onion.
Red Onion, built on a mountain about 400 miles from Richmond, isolates more inmates than any other facility in the state - nearly 500 of the state's 1,700. Inmates are kept in isolation for disciplinary problems, such as assaulting other prisoners or having drugs, or for protection, officials said.
Update: Clarke said Saturday that as of Friday night only three inmates were still refusing to eat.