Prison inmates in the US state of California have ended a nearly two-month hunger strike to protest policies that can keep some gang leaders isolated for decades, after lawmakers agreed to hold hearings on the issue, prison officials say.

More than 30,000 inmates had been refusing meals when the strike began in early July.

California's prison system is one of the largest and most crowded in the US. About 3,600 inmates are housed in the isolation units, which are designed to discipline inmates who commit crimes in prison or keep gang leaders from easily communicating with their followers.

Critics have warned that long-term isolation can hurt prisoners' mental health.

Advocates for the inmates said in a statement released on Thursday said that the strikers met with other prisoners and decided to end their fast because of the pending hearings and "the growing international condemnation of California's practice of solitary confinement".

Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said in a statement that all inmates began accepting prison-issued meals on Thursday.

"We are pleased this dangerous strike has been called off before any inmates became seriously ill," Beard said.

A federal judge had given authorities permission to force-feed inmates if necessary to save their lives.

Even the most committed of the hunger strikers, however, had been accepting vitamins and electrolyte drinks.

Solitary confinement

By this week, just 100 people remained on hunger strike, including 40 who had been on strike continuously since July 8.

Supporters and advocates for the inmates planned a rally later in the day.

Three of the four strike leaders have been held in isolation units for more than 20 years, and the fourth for more than a decade. The four organisers are serving life sentences for murder, have committed a string of assaults while incarcerated and lead rival prison gangs, officials say.

State Senator Loni Hancock, one of the lawmakers who agreed to hold the hearings, said in a statement that "the issues raised by the hunger strike are real - concerns about the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California's prisons - and can no longer be ignored".

Beard said the department will continue to carry out changes in its policies of sending inmates to Security Housing Units that were started two years ago.

The changes include more limits on which inmates are sent to the housing units. The policies also make it easier for inmates to work their way out of the isolation units.

Source: Agencies