Santa Clara County Inmates Call Off 5-Day Hunger Strike after Discussion with Jail Officials

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.

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.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

30 Comments

  1. Of course, SJI doesn’t consider it relevant to include why Lucero is in custody, or why he is considered high risk. From the amount of time he’s been in jail, it’s a good bet he’s awaiting trial for murder. It’s such a relief to know that he and the rest of these fine gentlemen are enjoying pizza night. I was so worried about them.

    • Five years in pre-trial isolation?? Obviously he’s waived time. Wanna bet he’s got priors, too? Is he waiting for all the witnesses to die before he pulls his time waiver?

        • I know he’s been locked up for five years, which can happen to anyone. I’m sure it has nothing to do with anything he did. He’s just another poor victim of our oppressive system.

          • no one said Mr. Lucero was completely innocent. I thought we were all innocent until proven guilty. How does that work?

      • It is obvious you both know nothing about our correctional system. I do. I worked at SQP in Marin County as an RN. No one was as dirty as the staffed employed by the state to be in charge of the inmates. Have you been locked in a closet for the past few years. Have you not been reading or watching the news?

        • Oh, by the way, I resigned from my prison job. It was an experience I would never want to give back, but it was difficult to see and be a party of.

          • Cue the violins for Ms. Wood.
            I don’t know Mr. Lucero’s rap sheet. Do you, Angela? I’d bet the farm the offense(s) for which Mr. Lucero is currently incarcerated are not his first criminal offenses. Are you one of those misguided women who line up to marry an inmate? No factually innocent person spends 5 years as a pre-trial inmate in a county jail in California, let alone all or most of it in solitary.

        • Ms. Wood, I also have worked in the prison industry for over 25 years and have a much different understanding of the jails. We in Santa Clara County do not now nor have we ever had an isolation unit. I have worked in every part of the jail, and on every shift, in every facility. Yes we do have high security units where people like Mr. Lucero are kept. But it is not we who determine their incarceration. Mr. Lucero has a long “rap” sheet, and I can remember him coming in for gang crimes back in the late 80’s. He is not a victim of circumstances but rather a person who’s crime has caught up to him. Where is the outrage for the victims of Mr. Lucero and his violence. The silence is deafening…

          • Mr. Gray, please understand that I am not condoning anyone’s behavior in jails or prison. I believe you and certainly never ever thought the said person was a victim at all. I appreciate your response, and respect your opinion and observations.

            We as a society need to incarcerate these charged with crimes as human beings. That is all.

            You know as well as I know that not everyone is guilty of what they are charged with. Most are. I agree with that.

            I just think we all need to take a look at things. Make sure my son, your son, anyone we love is not treated unjustly if they find themselves in the system.

            Thank you for addressing me and I wish you all the best.

            Angel

        • THANK YOU FOR YOUR HONEST AND FACTS ABOUT THE CORRECTIONAL SYSTEM AS A FORMER INMATE AT BOTH COUNTY AND STATE LEVELS I HAVE TO COMPLETELY AGREE WITH YOU

      • YOU KNOW IT IS UNFAIR YOU TO SAY THAT UNLESS YOU HAVE SOME ACTUAL FACTS ABOUT THAT MAN AND HIS CASE

    • Maybe when a person is young circumstances have set the tone for their future and lets remember your debt to society is never paid.

    • As well he enjoys those pre paid collect calls, with different prompted recordings opposed to aby other inmate calling collect. Why two different recordings, that just changing this late spring and why he moved from old jail to seventh floor

  2. Oh yes everyone in jail is innocent, the real criminals are running for office!

  3. US military veterans should stage a hunger strike. Somehow i think that story would not be as compelling to the weak-minded, short-sighted THUG LOVERS. Is it any surprise that the mothers that raised these gang-banging murders … ahemmm – alleged gang-banging murders – want the guards to treat them like they were at home? Wake up America! Being in jail should not be a vacation. It should be unpleasant enough to deter future illegal acts and shameful to the inmates AND THEIR FAMILIES. Don’t feel sorry for these inmates. They have been criminals their entire lives and locked up in jail and prison because of it. They are a threat to society and a threat to “regular” inmates… those housed in less restrictive housing. Leave them locked up and kept away from additional victims and worse… recruits for their gangs.

    • I’m supportive of our vets. It’s a travesty we neglect them, their medical care and everything about the people who fight for our country! I just do think this is exactly what we are discussing.

  4. > 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.

    Boy, are we are caring, compassionate society or what!

    I hope it’s a quality, first-run movie from a major studio, and not just some quickie dreck from Bulgaria with English sub-titles.

    I think I’m going to hug myself for being so good!

  5. This is wonderful news!!

    I am so glad that people were able to talk and trust one another and come to a solution that seemed reasonable to all. It is wonderful that the respectful and peaceful actions people took to suggest their concern about their situation were listened to so thoughtfully by others.

    I am also very, very glad that Mr. Pacheco took care of his health as his most important priority. Taking good care of ourselves and our health (while also peacefully communicating our basic needs in whatever way we can realistically do that while still taking good care of ourselves) should always be the priority. I hope that Mr. Pacheco– and others who may be in a similar situation–will always know in their hearts that it is most important that they remain in good health.

    I am very grateful that other people felt comfortable stopping their fast before they had gone too long without food since that can be dangerous for one’s health. Living in conditions of isolation is also harmful to one’s health, but it is sad to think of people voluntarily going without food as a way to express that. Going without food is very painful and I am glad that people no longer feel they need to do this.

    It made me so happy to see the news that people have reached a good solution.

    I am also incredibly impressed by the humanity and decency of the Sheriff’s Office.

  6. Hard to tell if Ms. Zoey is being sarcastic or is just a hopeless Pollyanna.

  7. The hunger strike was the best non-violent approach to solving the problem, unlike the three correctional officers who solved their problem by murdering a mentally ill inmate.

    • Do away with the discriminatory, unfair, inhumane jail segregation policies. No more isolation rooms and no more protective custody without “watchdog” approval.

      Mix child molesters in with the general jail population, Let rival gang members share cells and the same facilities at the same time. Leave the mentally ill to deal with other mentally ill inmates to whom they can relate, and let volunteer priests, social workers, and nurses like Angela , quell “misunderstandings” with love and have the Correctional Officers call ambulances and upload jail videos to a jumbo-tron outside the jail.

      Sell tickets to watch the videos of “jail love” and good-natured boxing, MMA matches and shankings. and use the money from ticket sales to feed the homeless. Use the old isolation cells, with bars removed, as affordable housing. Offer unguided tours of the jail so people can experience “free range” inmates and sample “pruno” and cheese at the jail commissary. Problem solved.

  8. This is what I hear from you Mr. Robillard, that you think I am oversensitive and a pushover. That I have absolutely no idea of what I speak. I know one thing. You can not put mentally ill individuals in a place where they can just deal with each other. That my friend, is the most idiotic thing I have ever heard. Mental illness is not a joke. It is the worst thing one can suffer from. I would not wish even on you. So, I would actually get to point at hand here and lay off those that can’t fend or defend themselves. If you want to talk about this…Get educated. Right now you are making my dick soft.