Inmates Go on Hunger Strike to Demand Better Conditions in Santa Clara County Jails

As Santa Clara County jails struggle to contain their biggest coronavirus outbreak to date, inmates are preparing to go on a hunger strike.

Organizers say they’re staging the action, which starts this morning, in solidarity with nationwide protests against racist policing and to demand better conditions behind bars, including more out-of-cell time and thorough investigations of grievances.

Jose Valle—a spokesman for the inmates and organizer for civil rights nonprofit Silicon Valley De-Bug—submitted a list of demands to journalists, jail officials and local leaders Thursday, saying one of the overarching goals is to call attention to racism and prejudice in the Santa Clara County criminal justice system.

“Specifically,” he wrote in a letter describing the inmates’ concerns, “the unjust practice of the Three Strikes law and gang enhancements statue that exists solely to impose extreme sentences predominantly upon Black and brown people.”

The inmates also want to condemn police brutality, Valle added, and remind everyone how local law enforcement agencies have been slow, if not unwilling, to release officers’ disciplinary records as required by SB 1421.

The Sheriff’s Office in particular, according to the hunger strikers, has shown “blatant disregard” for oversight by refusing to cooperate with the fledgling Santa Clara County Office of Corrections and Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM)—a unit created in response to inmate Michael Tyree’s murder in 2015 by three jail guards.

In a separate letter to local leaders and the public, the inmates spell out the following six problems in local jails and proposals for how to fix them.

  1. Lack of out-of-cell time due to unnecessary lockdowns.
    1. PROBLEM: When there is an incident (such as a fight, or a refusal to lock down) in one area of the jail, the entire facility is placed on lockdown as [correctional officers] from the rest of the units respond to said incident. It is not necessary for officers from every floor and every unit to respond to these isolated incidents leaving the rest of the units locked down for excessive periods of time. When an incident occurs in one unit, the officers from that floor are capable of responding to the scene and addressing the situation without affecting the operations and out of cell time in the units on other floors—unless circumstances require additional officers.
    2. SOLUTION: Stop exaggerated responses to small scale isolated incidents which result in unnecessary facility wide lockdowns and resume normal operations for out of cell time for affected areas once the situation is handled and under control.
  2. Lack of meaningful program opportunities.
    1. PROBLEM: Many inmates are deprived of rehabilitative opportunities due to lack of programs offered in their housing units. Even prior to Covid-19 the program units had cut back and cancelled many programs, and in the non-program units there are essentially no programs other than the 5 Keys high school diploma class. The Sheriff’s Office has the ability to implement more educational and rehabilitative programs such as college, vocational, arts and crafts, trauma recovery, enneagrams, parenting, relationship skills, self-help, and others which ultimately serves the best interest of institutional safety and security as well as the public safety.
    2. SOLUTION: Offer more meaningful program opportunities and make them available to all inmates—not just those in select housing units.
  3. Unfair and meaningless grievance system.
    1. PROBLEM: Inmates’ grievances are routinely “resolved” with vague and meaningless responses that do not address the issues being grieved. Moreover, the grievance unit (which was created to improve the grievance process) does nothing more than reaffirm staff’s responses to our grievances stating that the grievance was received and is now resolved. Grievance appeals are almost always denied or in favor of staff and /or unjust jail policies and receive the same vague and meaningless responses. It is clear from the negligent manner in which our grievances are handled that the grievance unit is biased and that our complaints are not taken seriously.
    2. SOLUTION: Thoroughly investigate each grievance and address its core issue(s) before “resolving” it and allow inmates to appeal to OCLEM for an unbiased review.
  4. Unjust restrictions on inmate trust accounts.
    1. PROBLEM: The current policy only allows inmates to release funds from their accounts twice (no more than $100 each time) throughout their entire incarceration. This unjustly limits our ability to access/release our personal property. We do not dispute the sheriff’s right to impose limitations and restrictions on the withdrawal/deposits of inmate trust accounts. However, these restrictions present an exaggerated response to the sheriff’s concern of inmates being victims of illicit activities i.e. extortion—especially when the property release procedures themselves already include safeguards to protect inmates from being extorted such as : (a) the person picking up the property having to present California ID, (b) CSA staff bringing the release authorization form to the inmate while correctional staff supervises, and (c) the inmate having the ability to either accept or deny the release. The current policy doesn’t just restrict releases … it prohibits them after that initial $200.
    2. SOLUTION: End the prohibition and unreasonable restrictions on the release of inmate trust account funds.
  5. Inadequate, ineffective access to law library/legal research and resources.
    1. PROBLEM: The California code of regulations requires local detention facilities to develop a program where inmates have “access to legal reference materials.” This jails agreement with Legal Research Associates (LRA) does not satisfy these requirements. The LRA only allows us to request five items at a time and those materials are not delivered until five to seven days later. Also, we are commonly denied research materials such as certain laws, initiatives, rules, and regulations as it “exceeds the scope of LRAs agreement with this facility.” This is not an effective way to conduct legal research and does not allow us sufficient access to legal reference materials and resources.
    2. SOLUTION: Improve LRAs response time to our legal research requests, expand LRAs agreement to include the materials and resources we need, and develop a program to provide inmates with a Law Library Electronic Delivery System which enables inmates to access WestLaw, and LexisNexis.
  6. Unreasonable and illogical restrictions on inmates’ access to jail phones.
    1. PROBLEM: On July 30, the jail shut off half the phones in each unit in order to meet social distancing requirements. The phones themselves are more than six feet apart and do not violate the [Santa Clara County] Public Health Department’s social distancing order. The phones were not impacted the past four months during the Covid-19 pandemic and should not be impacted now. Shutting off the phones does nothing to protect inmates or reduce the spread of the virus… All it does is limit our ability to communicate with our families, loved ones and attorneys and further antagonizes the inmate population.
    2. SOLUTION: Reactivate the phones immediately.

The Sheriff’s Office declined to address the specific demands of inmates.

Instead, agency spokeswoman Officer Jessica Gabaldon shared the following statement: “The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office is aware of the planned hunger strike that is set to begin … We take the health and welfare of those in our care seriously and we will work closely with Custody Health Services regarding those who elect to participate. Our office will continue to work to address and resolve concerns related to jail operations.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth. Or, click here to sign up for text updates about what she’s working on.

11 Comments

  1. Excellent reporting for the most voiceless in our community.. Anyone starting to see that this DA, Jeff Rosen, appears to have failed the poor who can not afford a lawyer ( in need of a public defender), those who are in limbo in our legal system ( folks waiting trial in our jails) and about every crime victim who actually experienced a crime that Mr. Rosen could not prosecute, or that would not help is political career? Anyone wonder about this picture?

    It is a humanity issue to assure due process and prevent cruel and unusual punishment. Mr., Rosen appears to have not gotten any lessons in humanity over his lifetime, his nattering about his youth from his DA soapbox for the past 10 years notwithstanding.

  2. DA Rosen reminds me of Kamala Harris.

    Has he locked up parents for truancy, too?

    How much does he pay per hour to put out fires?

    I wonder.

  3. “Excellent reporting for the most voiceless in our community.” — SUSAN BASSI

    Inmates are intended to be neither seen nor heard, at least by anyone not so unfortunate as to have to work for a correctional agency. This is a condition of the inmates own making. That said, to say they are the most voiceless in our community is hardly true: for decades those most voiceless have been members of that cognitive minority bright enough to be immune from identity politics, committed to personal responsibility, and unmoved by the girlish emotions of hopelessly immature progressives. Theirs is the community that has broken no crime, yet has consistently been denied the sensible and responsible governance they deserve.

  4. Excellent reporting for the most voiceless in our community during the police brutality protests and global pandemic. Anyone starting to see that this DA, Jeff Rosen, appears to have failed the poor ( in need of a public defender), those who are in limbo in our legal system ( folks waiting trial in our jails) and about every crime victim who actually experienced a crime that Mr. Rosen could not prosecute, or that would not help is political career? Anyone wonder about this picture?

    It is a humanity issue to assure due process and prevent cruel and unusual punishment. Mr. Rosen appears to have not gotten any lessons in humanity over his lifetime, his nattering about his youth from his DA soapbox for the past 10 years notwithstanding.

  5. The Sheriff’s Office states, “We take the health and welfare of those in our care seriously…”, but according to the senior jail administrator, they don’t make the Correctional Officers wear a mask when in the jail. Well, maybe not all that seriously.

  6. Ms. Bassi,
    Do you understand it is the DA’s job to prosecute criminals, not give them hugs or help them succeed in life? They wouldn’t need a public defender or be waiting for trial in jail if they followed Chris Rock’s first piece of advice in his video, which is: “OBEY THE LAW!” If the conditions are so abominable, why do the criminals keep returning? The recidivism rate in California has hovered around 70% for decades, including those criminals who have completed courses while in jail that were designed to rehabilitate them and prepare them for life on the outside. You don’t like jail food, then OBEY THE LAW after you get out and you can fill up on Big Macs and Taco Bell on the outisde. There aren’t enough phones so you can chat with your homies while doing your time? Then OBEY THE LAW when you get out and you can hammer on your stolen cell phone as long as you like. You don’t have a jailhouse law library that would be the envy of every small law firm or solo practitioner? Then OBEY THE LAW when you get out. It’s jail, not Club Med.
    A grievance policy? Seriously? Is being an inmate now a union job with a grievance policy?

  7. Phu, I don’t disagree that those you mentioned are voiceless in our community. However, my nominees for the designation of most voiceless are the victims of the crimes perpetrated by the people Ms. Bassi is most concerned about, the criminals. I sat on the 2013-2014 Civil Grand Jury. One of the issues we investigated was the restitution to crime victims promised by Proposition 8. The short version of our findings was that the system is a failure. The administrative staff was fine when acting as cashiers to collect the restitution payments ordered by the courts, but often very slow to disburse it to the victims. But there was only very minimal effort to go after those convicted criminals who did not pay restitution to their victims as ordered by the courts as part of their sentence.
    But that’s only part of the story about how in California, which is all I can speak to, the rights of criminals are almost always held to be superior to the rights of their victims. Just one example of this is continuances granted to the accused criminals. A hearing is set and the DA informs the victim to appear at the hearing. The victim takes off work, only to find that a continuance is being sought, almost always by the defense. The victim is told to come back on the new date. Another day of work lost. In serious felony cases this can occur multiple times. There are other ways that victims are battered by the system in ways not suffered by the criminals, but I’ll leave it at that for the sake of brevity, something I often lack when posting here.

  8. @JOHNMICHAEL O’CONNOR

    I always appreciate the opportunity for illumination. Thank you for that. I will now respectively move my victim group to second place.

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