Santa Clara County inmates called off a hunger strike over solitary confinement Friday after a discussion with jail officials.
Hundreds of inmates who went five days without food will break their fast with pizza and a movie, 50-year-old inmate Larry Lucero told San Jose Inside.
“I feel like it was worth our effort and the pain that I’m feeling right now,” he said in a phone call, still stunned by the outcome and weak from hunger.
As one of the lead organizers of the strike, Lucero was led throughout San Jose’s Main Jail to let the others know about the breakthrough. While correctional deputies led him through the jail, he said, he was struck by how many people had joined the effort.
“Today we can eat,” he told them, reciting a statement he prepared for the occasion.
From one unit to the next, Lucero said he relayed the message. In each unit, he added, inmates responded with applause.
“They were clapping,” he recalled. “It caught me off guard.”
The Sheriff's Office expressed relief about the strike ending.
“We look forward to maintaining open lines of communication as we move ahead with reforms in the future,” sheriff spokesman Sgt. Richard Glennon wrote in an email. He stressed that the dialogue with inmates was not a negotiation, but an open discussion to inform them about some of the changes already set in motion.
Today, an Asst. Sheriff met w/ inmates to communicate reforms which have occurred & outline new reforms for the future. Hunger Strike Over.
— SantaClaraCoSheriff (@SCCoSheriff) October 21, 2016
The biggest change will have a huge impact on Lucero, who spent the past 1,500 days awaiting trial in solitary confinement after prosecutors accused him of being a high-ranking Nuestra Familia gang leader. In 2013, he was indicted with 47 codefendants in what prosecutors call the biggest gang case in South Bay history.
“As of today, I’m no longer isolated,” said Lucero, who’s known as “Conejo,” which means rabbit in Spanish. “I’m still in the same cell, but they’re opening the doors to me.”
Hours before calling off the strike, Lucero was whisked away to an interview room for a one-on-one talk with Assistant Sheriff Troy Beliveau. He reportedly explained how the jails plan to revise the classification system, which sends inmates branded as high-risk to indefinite isolation without access to rehabilitation or education. Inmates in solitary said they were told Friday that they may get reclassified in three months to a lower risk level, which would put them in the mix with the jail’s general population.
In the meeting, the inmates said authorities told them that they would renegotiate a contract with commissary vendors to possibly lower the prices in the future so inmates and their families won’t be price-gouged for buying things like noodles, notebooks, soap and razors, among other things.
While inmates said jail officials told them that they lack the resources to offer more than one change of clothes a week, they agreed to give inmates basketball shorts to change into when they exercise.
“I believe he was there in good faith and wasn’t there to try to manipulate,” Lucero said. “I told him I need to trust him and he needs to trust me. … I liked his approach and I believe he was sincere.”
Over the course of five days, the hunger strike grew to upward of 300 inmates—more than 200 of them in solitary. The peaceful protest was part of a nationwide uprising that began with prisoners in other states refusing to report to work. The movement spread to more than a dozen states and grew to include tens of thousands of inmates.
In Santa Clara County, the demands centered on what inmates viewed as the excessive use of solitary confinement and arbitrary—as opposed to behavior-based—security classification. A lawsuit filed against the county a year ago by the Prison Law Office echoed similar concerns, citing cases in which inmates spent seven months without sunlight or fresh air. The claim by the nonprofit advocacy group prompted the Main Jail to empty a row of solitary confinement cells in Third West Max. While those inmates were relocated to other parts of the jail, they remained in isolation with no human contact and no access to classes or support groups.
The hunger strike seemed to have put the county under more pressure than litigation from the nonprofit law group, inmates remarked.
“This was the only thing that worked,” said Lucero, who took part in a hunger strike three years ago while doing time at Pelican Bay State Prison.
Sgt. Glennon said the changes talked about by inmates had nothing to do with the hunger strike, but with reform plans already in place.
Some of the strikers ended the protest earlier for health reasons. Robert Pacheco, one of Lucero’s co-defendants, broke his fast at 3am Friday. The 33-year-old Oglala Sioux inmate said he had been cutting back on his food consumption leading up to the strike to prepare for the deprivation. But he said his mother’s need for a kidney donor, which would likely have to be him or one of his six siblings, prompted him to opt out earlier than he had anticipated.
Inmates said they will resume the strike if the jail fails to follow through. Ultimately, they said want the county to model its classification system after the one used in state prisons by the California Department of Corrections.
The county’s two jails have been under a harsh spotlight since three correctional deputies were charged with murder in connection to a mentally ill inmate’s fatal beating last year. Since Michael Tyree’s killing, a citizen watchdog commission and various outside organizations have called on Sheriff Laurie Smith to enact top-down reforms in the two jails under her purview. Demands made by inmates who went on strike this week aligned with several of those proposals and garnered support from the union representing the sheriff’s enforcement officers.
But the head of the Correctional Peace Officers’ Association, which represents deputies who staff the jails, said she disagrees with the demands made by inmates.
“The inmates locked up in our facilities are there for either being convicted of committing crimes or are awaiting charges for crimes such as murder, aggravated assault, rape and or other offenses,” Lt. Amy Le, president of the correctional union, wrote in an email. “Some of those refusing jail issued meals are eating food purchased from the commissary. ... We take pride in our ability to work collaboratively toward ensuring our facilities are safe for inmates, visitors and Correctional Deputies. It is unfortunate that some may want to try and score political points by trying to disrupt what has become a collaborative effort to improve our custody facilities.”
This article has been updated.