Santa Clara County inmates called offÂ a hunger strike over solitary confinement Friday after a discussion with jail officials.
Hundreds of inmatesÂ who went five days without food will break their fastÂ with pizza and a movie, 50-year-old inmate Larry Lucero told San Jose Inside.
â€śI feel like it was worth our effort and the pain that Iâ€™m feeling right now,â€ť 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 Joseâ€™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.
â€śToday we can eat,â€ť he told them, recitingÂ aÂ statement he prepared for the occasion.
From one unit to the next, LuceroÂ said he relayed the message. In each unit, heÂ added, inmates responded with applause.
â€śThey were clapping,â€ť he recalled. â€śIt caught me off guard.â€ť
The Sheriff's Office expressed relief about the strike ending.
â€śWe look forward to maintaining open lines of communication as we move ahead with reforms in the future,â€ť 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.
â€” SantaClaraCoSheriff (@SCCoSheriff) October 21, 2016
The biggest change will have a hugeÂ impact onÂ Lucero, who spent the past 1,500 days awaiting trial inÂ solitary confinement after prosecutors accused him of being aÂ high-ranking Nuestra Familia gang leader. In 2013, he was indicted with 47Â codefendants in what prosecutorsÂ callÂ the biggest gang case in South Bay history.
â€śAs of today, Iâ€™m no longer isolated,â€ť said Lucero, whoâ€™s known as â€śConejo,â€ť which means rabbit in Spanish. â€śIâ€™m still in the same cell, but theyâ€™re opening the doors to me.â€ť
Hours before calling off the strike, Lucero was whisked away to an interview room for a one-on-one talkÂ with Assistant Sheriff Troy Beliveau. HeÂ reportedly explained how the jails plan toÂ revise the classification system, which sendsÂ inmates branded as high-risk to indefinite isolation without access to rehabilitation or education. InmatesÂ in solitary said they were told Friday that theyÂ mayÂ get reclassified in three months toÂ aÂ lower risk level, which would putÂ them in the mix with theÂ jailâ€™s general population.
In the meeting, the inmates said authorities told them that they would renegotiateÂ a contract with commissary vendors to possibly lower the prices in the futureÂ so inmates and their families wonâ€™t be price-gouged for buying things like noodles, notebooks, soap and razors, among other things.
While inmates said jail officials told them thatÂ 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.
â€śI believe he was there in good faith and wasnâ€™t there to try to manipulate,â€ť Lucero said. â€śI told him I need to trust him and he needs to trust me. â€¦ I liked his approach and I believe he was sincere.â€ť
Over the course of five days, the hunger strike grew to upward of 300 inmatesâ€”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 ofÂ solitary confinement and arbitraryâ€”as opposed to behavior-basedâ€”security classification. A lawsuit filed against the county a year ago by the Prison Law Office echoed similarÂ concerns, citing cases in which inmates spent seven months without sunlight or fresh air.Â TheÂ claim by the nonprofit advocacy groupÂ prompted the Main Jail to empty a row ofÂ solitary confinement cells in Third West Max.Â 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 haveÂ put the county under more pressure than litigation from the nonprofit law group, inmates remarked.
â€śThis was the only thing that worked,â€ť 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 forÂ health reasons. Robert Pacheco, one of Luceroâ€™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 motherâ€™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 theÂ strike if the jail fails to follow through. Ultimately, they said want the county to model its classification systemÂ afterÂ the one used in state prisons by theÂ California Department of Corrections.
TheÂ countyâ€™s two jails have been under a harsh spotlight since three correctionalÂ deputies were charged with murder in connection to a mentally ill inmateâ€™s fatal beating last year. Since Michael Tyreeâ€™s killing, a citizen watchdogÂ commission and various outside organizations have called on Sheriff Laurie Smith to enact top-down reforms in the two jails under her purview.Â Demands made by inmates who went on strike this week aligned with several of those proposals and garnered support from the union representing the sheriffâ€™s enforcement officers.
ButÂ the head of the Correctional Peace Officersâ€™ Association, which represents deputies who staff the jails, said she disagrees with the demands made by inmates.
â€śThe 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,â€ť Lt. Amy Le, president of theÂ correctional union, wroteÂ in an email. â€śSome of those refusing jail issued meals are eating food purchased from the commissary. ...Â We take pride in our ability to work collaboratively toward ensuring our facilities are safe for inmates, visitors and Correctional Deputies.Â 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.â€ť
This article has been updated.