Santa Clara County inmates plan to refuse food to protest what they call the arbitrary use of solitary confinement and other jail conditions, which authorities pledged to improve after a similar hunger strike almost exactly a year ago.
The strike, which began at the start of this week in Alameda County and is set to begin Sunday in Santa Clara County, spans four jails. Prisoners United of Silicon Valley, the group representing inmates in the local strike, sent a letter to Sheriff Laurie Smith—available online here—that spells out their demands. It states that a hunger strike was called off on Oct. 22, 2016, to give the county time to reform inhumane policies such as inadequate out-of-cell time and restrictive visitation for low-security inmate.
“Although some changes have been made within Santa Clara County jails since the suspension of the hunger strike, we the prisoners continue to be subjected to arbitrary policies and practices imposed by the officers and their supervisors, which deny the spirit and intent behind giving prisoners out-of-cell programming,” the letter reads.
Inmates say they have exhausted all avenues to address their concerns about use of group punishment and a lack of due process in the way detainees are classified and housed according to their perceived security risk. In their letter, the inmates say they alerted independent jail monitors, filed grievances, spoke with custody staff and filled out requests forms—to no avail.
The Sheriff’s Office has stated that it doesn’t use solitary confinement, and that even maximum-security inmates spend several hours a week outside their cells. But inmates who spoke to San Jose Inside last year said that they remained in de facto isolation because they never interacted with fellow detainees.
According to sources inside the jail, the administrative segregation policies being protested stem from a directive by the federal government to limit communication among allegedly high-ranking gang members indicted four years ago in the single-largest gang investigation in the county’s history. During the 2016 strike, one of those inmates— Larry Lucero, who’s accused of being a regional Nuestra Familia gang leader—was leading the talks with sheriff’s officials.
Lucero called San Jose Inside several times during the course of the 2016 strike, which he said ended after a one-on-one discussion with Assistant Sheriff Troy Beliveau. According to Lucero, Beliveau assured him that the jail would enact changes that aligned with inmates’ demands.
But it’s unclear whether the jail officials formalized any commitment after that meeting. Sheriff’s spokesmen insisted that it was not a negotiation, but a discussion. Lucero and other inmates who spoke to San Jose Inside came away with a different impression, and called off the strike because of what they viewed as a negotiated settlement.
Former Undersheriff John Hirokawa, who retired three months before last year’s hunger strike and is now running against Sheriff Smith in the 2018 election, says custody staff should have been more transparent about that meeting between Beliveau and Lucero.
“This recent hunger strike is the result of a deal and promises the Sheriff’s Office administration made with a high-profile gang member to end the October 2016 hunger strike,” he says. “The Sheriff’s Office administration has concealed yet another major problem in the management of the jails. According to rank-and-file members and mid-level managers who work in the jails, five gang leaders were moved from restrictive housing in Main Jail South and promised more out-of-cell time, more privileges, and a lower classification in exchange for ending the hunger strike, which was putting Laurie Smith in a bad light. There was no transparency to this deal, which now exposes the jails to the accusations contained within the Prisoners United letter.”
Hirokawa also says Sheriff Smith may have broken county policy.
“In making this deal, I believe Laurie Smith violated Department of Correction policy and procedure that forbids making such deals,” he says. “Couple this ill-conceived deal with rushing to implement the jail reforms without sufficient infrastructure, staffing levels, and programs in place to support those reforms, and it has resulted in record number of assaults on staff and inmate on inmate assaults, overcrowding and understaffed living units, unrealistic out-of-cell time, promises that cannot be safely achieved, and over-worked staff.”
As a result, Hirokawa adds, the Sheriff’s Office has seen three avoidable inmate deaths, an escape and other mistakes.
“Laurie Smith tries to blame everyone else for these problems, including me, but the public is not buying what she is selling,” he says.
Sheriff Smith refutes Hirokawa’s claims.
“Hirokawa is wrong,” she says. “We are fixing his problems and he knows it. Further, we do not allow gangs to run the jails—and some of them could stand to lose a little weight. We will give their fresh food to the Salvation Army again. There are hungry people who committed no crimes and deserve a dinner.”
Sgt. Reginald Cooks, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, declined to respond in detail to the list of inmate demands issued this week. But he said the agency has met with community groups to talk about some of the concerns.
“The conversation was productive and I believe both sides appreciate the open dialogue and engagement,” he wrote in an email to San Jose Inside. “However, we cannot speculate on future protests … or events that may occur in our facilities. We will monitor the situation as it unfolds along with our custody health staff to ensure inmates in custody are afforded appropriate care.”
Like the 2016 strike, the one this week seeks to renew public scrutiny of the county jails, which have been plagued by a series of scandals. In 2015, three jail guards murdered mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree. The county’s treatment of mentally ill and disabled inmates remains the subject of litigation by public-interest law groups.
Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office has suffered a series of public embarrassments. In Late last year, two inmates escaped, despite the fact that staff was warned of their plan. Another time, sheriff’s clerks told a homicide suspect trying to turn himself in at the Main Jail to go to the San Jose Police Department instead. More recently, the jail accidentally released a convicted felon.
Correction: A previous version of this story noted that the hunger strike has already started in both Alameda and Santa Clara counties. The strike in this county is not scheduled to begin until Oct. 22. San Jose Inside regrets the error. The story has also been updated to include comments from Sheriff Laurie Smith.