Back to What's New

Another hunger strike surfaces in Santa Clara County jails

SAN JOSE — Inmates at the Santa Clara County jails are engaging in their third hunger strike in two years to revive ongoing grievances about issues including inmate isolation, and new to this incarnation, basic sanitation.

The hunger strike officially began Sunday at the Main Jail in San Jose and Elmwood Correctional Complex in Milpitas. It also comes amid a steady stream of reforms spurred in the wake of the 2015 beating death of mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree at the hands of three jail deputies who were later convicted of murder.

Arguably the most notable of those reforms was the creation last month of a county Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring, a civilian watchdog to act as an independent vessel for complaints from the public and inmates against the Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jails.

Jose Valle, a community organizer with the civil-rights group Silicon Valley De-Bug, said inmate concerns have to be the backbone of any jail reforms that get implemented in the county.

“When we talk about jail reform and rehabilitation, they’re on the front line of that,” Valle said. “That’s what down-classing is about, so they get more visits with family, rehabilitation, education. They have the most stakes in this.”

The “down-classing” reference alludes to ongoing inmate outcry over how they are classified and placed into restrictive housing — including what they assert is virtual solitary confinement that entails 22 hours a day of cell time and minimal overlap with other people.

Like it did last fall when an 11th-hour meeting with jail officials staved off a similar strike, the Sheriff’s Office contends it has increased out-of-cell time for high-security inmates, and in larger groups rather than individually, in response to the isolation complaints.

Sheriff Laurie Smith has been at loggerheads with inmates over the protest tactics, a tension that led to her flippant comment last fall about how some of the inmates could stand to lose weight. On Monday, a statement from her office was more circumspect.

“We have diligently been working through our jail reform plan in collaboration with several national experts. The current hunger strike, instigated by a select few individuals, is an unproductive negotiating tactic for change,” the Sheriff’s Office said. “Custody improvements and reforms will continue as scheduled irrespective of the inmate protest.”

Smith has previously argued that safety issues are posed by allowing too much co-mingling among high-security inmates, at least half of whom she says are accused of murder and other violent offenses. She said additional out time is being provided and staff is on alert for a potential rise in inmate fights as a result of the overlap.

Law-enforcement sources say jail administrators are also concerned about the accumulation of influence by high-profile gang inmates who are spearheading the inmate-rights push on the inside, and that their integration into the broader jail population could lead to more jail violence.

Valle lauded improvements in classification procedures, but argued inmates still get uneven attention after they “improve their situation” and warrant consideration for less-stringent classification, and corresponding privileges.

“There is no consistency,” Valle said. “You don’t know how long you’re going to be in restrictive housing. There’s no clear understanding.”

Prisoners United of Silicon Valley, the inmate coalition backed by local civil-rights groups, sent a letter to the Sheriff’s Office late last month restating its demands and reasons for striking. Among the new elements was a complaint about receiving insufficient cleaning supplies and getting enough allotted time to clean up their housing areas.

“Cleaning, believe it or not, is a privilege there,” Valle said.

An exact estimate of the number of inmates participating in the current hunger strike was not immediately available, but Valle said that it’s at least a hundred. The Sheriff’s Office acknowledged that an unspecified number of inmates had begun to refuse meals as of Sunday.

The adherence to the strike has varied among inmates: Some are refusing to eat altogether, while many are simply not eating their jail-provided meals while still consuming food items purchased in the jail commissary. Jail officials said they will be monitoring the health of striking inmates.

“The health and safety of our staff, visitors and inmates is always our top priority,” the Sheriff’s Office said. “Per protocol, medical staff will be evaluating all participants for the duration of the event.”

Robert Salonga
The Mercury News

Stay Connected