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Occupy Wall Street Takes On U.S. Prison Conditions

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By Laird Harrison

SAN QUENTIN, Calif., Feb 20 (Reuters) - Hundreds of anti-Wall Street demonstrators and prison reform activists joined forces outside San Quentin State Prison in California on Monday to protest high incarceration rates and living conditions for inmates.

Speakers said the state's sentencing laws were too strict. They called for an end to solitary confinement and the death penalty and said children should not be tried as adults.

"I myself experienced more than 14 months of solitary confinement," said Sarah Shourd, 33, an American imprisoned in Iran after being arrested while hiking near the Iraq border in 2009. "After only two months, my mind began to slip."

She was joined at the protest by Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, who spent more than two years in prison in Iran after being arrested with Shourd, and by former members of the Black Panthers African-American activist group who spoke of a history of problems at the San Quentin prison.

The prison is California's oldest correctional facility and houses the state's only gas chamber.

Activist Barbara Becnel said prisoners were drawing inspiration from the Occupy movement, which spread across the country last autumn with calls for greater economic equality. The movement has lost ground as many U.S. cities evicted protesters from their tent camps.

"We have merged the prison rights movement with the Occupy movement," Becnel said, quoting a message she said came from San Quentin death row prisoner Kevin Cooper. "The 99 percent has to be concerned about the bottom 1 percent."

Marin County Sheriff's Office Sergeant Keith Boyd estimated the crowd numbered 600 to 700 people at its height.

Demonstrators held a moment of silence for Christian Alexander Gomez, 27, who died on Feb. 2 while on a hunger strike in California's Corcoran State Prison.

Gomez was among thousands of California prisoners who have staged hunger strikes in waves since July, starting with protests against isolation units at Pelican Bay State Prison.

The strikes began after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May that California prison overcrowding was causing "needless suffering and death" and ordered the state to reduce the number of prisoners to 110,000, still well over the maximum capacity, from 140,000.

In an interview with Reuters, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terry Thornton contradicted speakers who said they had been held in isolation while in prison in the state.

"Inmates held in segregated units are not isolated," she said. "Some inmates are single-celled. But they converse with other inmates. They can get visits and they interact with staff." (Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)

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