Santa Clara County inmates have commenced their 10th day of a hunger strike over jail conditions, according to activists calling attention to their plight.
An estimated 200-plus inmates have been refusing food and boycotting the commissary at the Main Jail in San Jose and Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas since April 15. One inmate has lost 22 pounds since the strike commenced, inmate advocate and community organizer Jose Valle said Monday afternoon.
In a phone call from the Main Jail, an inmate who asked to remain anonymous said there’s a pervasive view among inmates that punitive policies are applied unjustly.
“They still find ways to discriminate,” he said, “to exclude people from the process.”
The same inmate has been phoning updates to Silicon Valley De-Bug as well, telling the civil rights group that jail staff held off on weighing inmates until a full week into the fast.
The protest this week is part of an ongoing effort by inmates to leverage public scrutiny of the jails that intensified in the wake of inmate Michael Tyree’s fatal beating at the hands of three jail deputies in 2015.
In a letter sent to Sheriff Laurie Smith a few weeks ahead of the current strike, inmates behind a coalition called Silicon Valley Prisoners United enumerate four demands:
- End arbitrary classification reviews
- End arbitrary solitary confinement
- End negligence and abuse of the inmate grievance system
- End loss of out-of-cell time due to interrupted lockdowns and insufficient cleaning supplies to maintain sanitary conditions.
“This letter is to inform you that we the [Santa Clara County jail] prisoners housing in solitary confinement continue to endure injustice, indefinite periods of solitary confinement and negligent abuse of the grievance system,” their March 26 missive reads. “We are deprived of our due process rights, our grievances appeals are habitually delayed, and our chief concerns are often misrepresented by staff or ignored completely.”
The inmates also criticize the jail administration for a lack of clarity about the definition of “solitary confinement.”
“So for the purposes of this letter, we will use the definition given by the U.S. Department of Justice: terms ‘isolation’ or ‘solitary confinement’ mean the state of being confined to one’s cell for approximately 22 hours per day or more alone or with other prisoners, which limits contact with others.’”
The Sheriff’s Office—which since 2015 has been battling federal litigation brought by the nonprofit Prison Law Office over allegedly unconstitutional use of solitary confinement—has repeatedly insisted that it ended the practice. But inmates say the jail continues to employ indefinite isolation, even after California prisons put a stop to it three years ago.
According to local inmates participating in the hunger strike, inmates placed under the most restrictive security classification only get 90 minutes of “out time” every other day. On average, according to their demand letter, they’re confined to their cells for 23 hours a day. Select inmates in the highest-security classification get three hours of “out time” every other day.
By the DOJ’s own definition, that’s solitary confinement, the inmates note in their letter.
“[High security classification] is not an effective nor a reasonable step down plan, as no timeline exists for reintegration, and jail staff blatantly inform us that no opportunity for us to down-class exists,” the letter reads. “Once again, we find ourselves in a situation where our voices are not heard, and despite our grievances, appeals and letters to captains, our concerns go unaddressed.”
Click here to read a copy of their entire statement.
The Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the county’s two jails, has yet to respond to San Jose Inside’s request for comment. But in statements to other news outlets, the agency’s communications staff said the jails have been “diligently” applying a number of reforms under the guidance of nationally renowned experts.
One of those changes involved closing every maximum security tier at the Main Jail South, the oldest wing of the facility. Since August of 2016, the Sheriff’s Office has down-classed—that is, eased up housing restrictions—about 600 inmates who were previously pegged as maximum-security incarcerates.
According to the county, Sheriff Smith also requested $454,834 in the next-year budget to hire a new correctional lieutenant and correction sergeant to supervise an expanding classification unit, which determines inmate security risks and housing restrictions. She also requested another $290,402 to hire a correctional captain to oversee the unit.
Sheriff’s spokesmen dismissed the current hunger strike as unproductive, since those and other reforms are already underway.
“The current hunger strike, instigated by a select few individuals, is an unproductive negotiating tactic for change,” the statement said. “Custody improvements will continue as scheduled, irrespective of the inmate protest.”
Sheriff’s officials said the health and safety of the inmates is a priority, and that medical staff will keep a close eye on the strikers.