The union for Santa Clara County sheriff deputies has come out in support of jail inmates staging a two-week hunger strike to protest the over-use of solitary confinement.
“We find ourselves in agreement with the striking inmates,” said Dep. Roger Winslow, vice president of the Santa Clara County Deputy Sheriff’s Association.
Winslow said the inmates’ list of demands point to oft-cited failures on the part of Sheriff Laurie Smith, who faced strong opposition from the union in her 2014 bid for re-election.
“Despite these calls for reform from a range of voices, the sheriff refuses to implement commonsense policies that would help officers better serve and protect our community,” Winslow said. “Her lackluster response to the serious hunger strike at hand is yet another example of her incompetence.”
The Santa Clara County Peace Officers' Association, which represents the correctional deputies who staff the jails, has yet to issue a public statement about the civil disobedience. The inmates, for their part, have stressed that their protest is not against the jail guards but the administration and its policies.
Inmates are going on day four of the strike, which coincides with a nationwide prison uprising that began as a work stoppage. Estimates vary, but sources within the jail tell San Jose Inside that about 300 inmates are in different stages of fasting.
The Sheriff’s Office, which oversees San Jose’s Main Jail and the Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas, said nurses are keeping a close eye on the strikers. The jails will continue to prepare food for all inmates, but will donate rejected boxed meals to the local Salvation Army homeless shelter, according to sheriff spokesman Sgt. Richard Glennon.
“We understand the concerns raised by the population in our care,” Sgt. Glennon said in a prepared statement. “We have implemented many recent reforms specifically addressing needs raised by the affected population.”
For example, Glennon said, the jail has increased the amount of time inmates spend out of their cells, lowered the price of phone calls and provided additional clothing. Inmates dispute that last point. While they got additional T-shirts and socks, they still take turns wearing jackets during yard time and only get one clothing change a week.
Several inmates have been calling San Jose Inside with updates as the strike progresses. They said nurses are handing out white fliers describing the health risks of extended fasting, which prompted some inmates to reconsider.
Robert Pacheco—a 33-year-old inmate awaiting trial isolation for nearly five straight years—said he plans to start eating Friday after learning about how extended fasting can damage internal organs. He said his elderly mother, a cancer survivor, is going through dialysis and may need one of her seven children to donate a kidney.
“They’re going to do a test on me to see if I’m even compatible to give her a kidney,” Pacheco said in a phone call Thursday. “I don’t want to go through the whole thing and damage my kidneys by not eating.”
Fellow inmate and pretrial detainee Larry Lucero, 50, said he’s starting to feel the physical symptoms of the fast. A headache has set in, he said, while his vision blurs and his hands shake. He said he lost seven pounds in four days, dropping from 167 to 160. This isn’t his first hunger strike. As an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison, he said, he went 21 days without food as part of an uprising of 30,000 prisoners throughout the state. But the effects are more severe now that he’s a few years older.
Many of the inmates have been preventing medical staff from trying to take their vitals or do anything except weigh them, Lucero said. It’s another way to ramp up the pressure and force the powers that be to negotiate with them.
“We understand who holds the key, so it’s not a battle,” he said. “We’re just trying to get what we’re entitled to, right?”
The inmates have five core demands: to overhaul the classification system, to make solitary confinement a behavior-based penalty, to provide adequate clothing, to curb excessive commissary charges and to spend the Inmate Welfare Fund on education and rehabilitation. Inmates sent an open letter to the sheriff—available here online—weeks before they began refusing food.
As part of the protest, inmates are boycotting the commissary, which reportedly charges $1 for a 25-cent package of dried noodles and $5 for an eight-pack of tortillas.
Sheriff Smith said the jails have already ended solitary confinement, which civil rights groups call unconstitutional cruelty. The Main Jail has emptied out a row of designated solitary confinement cells in Third West Max in response to a lawsuit filed last year by the Prison Law Office on behalf of two inmates.
But several of the men who were relocated from those cells to other parts of the jail said they continue to live in isolation. Many of them claim to have spent months or years with next to no human contact except their brief interactions with guards at mealtimes. Detainees holed up in one-man cells because of their high-risk classification—usually because of suspected gang affiliation—can’t access rehabilitative programs like Narcotics Anonymous or vocational classes.
Inmates acknowledged that they may not be the most sympathetic characters, but noted that people accused of crimes still have a right to due process.
“I understand that not everybody’s going to understand our plight … We're not saying to abolish solitary confinement,” Lucero clarified. “If we deserve to come back here based on disciplinary action, then put us back here. But not indefinitely.”
Before the hunger strike, he said, the only highlight of the day was getting breakfast, lunch and dinner through a slot in the door. Now the only thing to look forward to is sleep, which has been hard to come by since the hunger pangs kicked in.
“We’re not even living, we’re existing,” Lucero said. “Anything that makes life meaningful is sucked out of it.”