Santa Clara County inmates on Monday went on hunger strike to protest solitary confinement and what they see as a gap between policy and practice.
The dissent that kicked off this week at Elmwood Correctional Facility and San Jose’s Main Jail is part of what may go down as one of the largest inmate uprisings in American history. According to The Nation, more than 24,000 inmates in a dozen states have taken part in the collective action, which began as a prison labor strike and was timed to begin Sept. 9 on the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising.
Inmates at the Main Jail told San Jose Inside that about 145 of them began refusing meals to highlight what they call an arbitrary classification system that denies them due process. There’s also a sense that many of the reforms proposed in the wake of an inmate’s fatal beating last year—allegedly by three jail guards—have yet to translate to reality. But the primary goal, inmates added, is to draw attention to county’s continued use of isolation, despite litigation calling the practice inhumane and unconstitutional.
“I come out by myself, I do not interact with nobody else, no card playing, no nothing,” said a Main Jail detainee, who asked to withhold his name.“When we go out in the yard, we come out one person at a time. We’re in our cells by ourselves.”
The Sheriff’s Office, which oversees county corrections, has yet to respond to a request for comment. But Sheriff Laurie Smith refuted the allegations to other news outlets.
In November 2015, the nonprofit Prison Law Office sued the Sheriff’s Office on behalf of two inmates—Brandon Bracamonte and Brian Chavez—who say they spent seven months without human contact in the Third West Max unit at San Jose’s Main Jail. The plaintiffs said the drawn-out solitude induced anxiety and thoughts of dying alone in their cells.
Nearly a year later, the county is negotiating a settlement with the advocacy nonprofit to improve conditions at its two jails. While litigation over solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison has pressured California prisons to ease up on the practice, local jails have apparently been slower to enact those reforms.
When San Jose Inside toured the Main Jail this past spring, Sheriff Smith showed that the cells of Third West Max had been emptied out. But inmates tell San Jose Inside that the county continues to subject people to indefinite isolation in other parts of the jail.
Fifty-year-old inmate Larry Lucero echoed concerns brought up by the Prison Law Office. For four-and-a-half years, he said, his high-risk classification has kept him in isolation, which limits his visitation time and blocks access to vocational training, group activities or other resources. He said he has repeatedly filed grievances, but nothing came of them.
“They isolate me by removing any form of social oxygen,” said Lucero, who took part in a hunger strike a few years ago as an inmate at Pelican Bay.
His mother, Luisa Lucero, said she worries how the long-term isolation will affect her son’s mental health. She said she takes issue with the county’s claim that the jails no longer use solitary confinement when her son remains starved of human contact.
“They don’t call it ‘the shoe,’ but it’s the same thing as being in the shoe,” she said.
Angel Martinez, 33, said he, too, has been locked in solitary confinement—even if the county won’t call it that—for four years. He said his dorm consists of six single-man cells.
“We go to yard in a dog cage,” said Martinez, who hails from Visalia but has a wife and children in the South Bay.
Inmates, their families and other advocates circulated a letter ahead of this week’s protest that spelled out their core demands. The list authored by a group called the Prisoner Human Rights Movement—available online here—alleges that the county fails to provide adequate clothing and hygiene. It also accuses the Sheriff’s Office of offering kickbacks to commissary vendors and of misusing money meant for inmate rehabilitation.
Inmates inside the Main Jail say they object to the high prices charged at the commissary, which charges a dollar for a 25-cent package of dried ramen and $5 for an eight-pack of tortillas. The clothing becomes a problem in the fall and winter, they added. They say there aren't enough jackets to go around and if they get rained on during yard time, they're have to wear those same wet clothes until they dry off.
Strikers plan to end the protest at midnight Oct. 30. They tell San Jose Inside that nurses have been monitoring the inmates’ vitals. Lucero commended the nurses and said he has no qualms with the jail guards, who are just doing their job.
“Our state of mind is not us against them,” he said. “It’s not about these deputies. This is their place of employment, this puts the food on their table. We understand that. We don’t have a problem with that … [our problem] is with the administration.”
Three years ago, more than 30,000 California prisoners staged an indefinite hunger strike over some of the same issues raised by this week’s jail protest. The prison strike, which began in July 2013, lasted for two months and resulted in one inmate’s death.
This article has been updated.