Santa Rita County Jail, Dublin, California
October 30 – November 5, 2019

Prisoners at the Santa Rita County Jail staged a hunger strike and work strike in protest of “widespread institutional neglect and abuse, including unsanitary living conditions, price gouging, poor medical care, forced labor, and lack of access to legal resources,” according to a statement written by the hunger strikers and released by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a prisoner support group.

The strikers initially announced a one-day hunger strike, but on October 31, day two of the strike, IWOC announced that the strike had grown from an estimated 60 prisoners to nearly 400 and that prisoners housed in the women’s jail had also joined in. On November 5, the strike ended, lasting six days in total, five more than had initially been announced.

The hunger strikers said that the situation at the jail is at a “crisis point,” highlighting issues of sanitation and lack of adequate treatment for those dealing with symptoms of addiction withdrawal. “Detainees are only provided cleaning supplies once a week…[and] are contracting lice, bed bugs, and flesh-eating staph infections from the MRSA virus.” They also added that guards routinely ignore medical and mental health emergencies.

Supporters organize a “phone zap” for detainees on hunger and work strike at the Santa Rita County Jail (Source: IWOC-Oakland).

“Many prisoners have self-harmed and are left with untreated wounds; individuals suffering from addiction withdrawal are not sent to the infirmary, and instead endure painful and dangerous symptoms in their dorms,” they wrote.

Attorney Yolanda Huang, who represents the strikers, held a press conference in front of the jail. She highlighted issues with sanitation and prisoners working without pay. “This jail runs on slave labor. Everyone who works in this jail works for free,” Huang said.

According to Huang, on day one of the strike prisoners reported that more than 60 prisoners participated in the hunger strike in addition to refusing to report to their work assignments.

Attorney Yolanda Huang speaking at a press conference in support of the detainees on hunger strike at the Santa Rita County Jail (Source: Bay Area News Group).

Huang also stated that the hunger strike began with prisoners refusing meals for half a day on October 18. “It has snowballed from there” she continued. Huang also said that she’s heard that female prisoners at the jail will join the strikers on October 31.

Assistant Sheriff Nice of the Santa Rita County Sheriff’s Department claimed that only 19 prisoners had refused breakfast on Wednesday, but did acknowledge the existence of a collective protest and a list of demands.

On Thursday, October 31, Sergeant Ray Kelly, Public Information Officer for the Santa Rita County Sheriff’s Department stated that he did not have an exact number of prisoners who had refused meals, but that he definitely didn’t think it was 400. “The number is small and seems to be isolated to one area of the jail,” he said.

The strikers also raised the issue of retaliation for their protest:

“In addition to facing inhumane conditions inside, strike participants are being threatened and intimidated by Santa Rita guards. One organizer has been transferred out to a more distant jail already, and others were threatened with 30 additional days of jail time. Advocates are calling on the community to contact the Sheriff’s Office and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to ask that detainees not be punished for engaging in peaceful protest.”

Kelly stated that he wanted to be clear that there would be no retaliation or punishment for those participating in the strike. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he stated.

The jail has been in communication with the strikers about their demands, Kelly stated. “We don’t respond to demands, but we are definitely having communication,” he said. “We have a liaison who will talk to them. You gotta have conversations with people to understand what they’re upset about and what their perceptions are.”

According to Huang, the conditions at the jail are the result of a culture of harshness created by Sheriff Ahern. “They believe that their entire job is to be harsh and punitive to every person who walks through their doors. They feel that the people they bring in are evil, that these are not pretrial detainees–they are criminals who are unworthy of kindness and compassion. And the Sheriff has said so himself on television. These are liars. They make things up.”

The jail has been on lockdown recently, causing prisoners to be locked in their cells 24 hours a day. According to the strikers, the lockdown is the result of short staffing due to Sheriff Ahern sending personnel to respond to the Kinkaid Fire. The prisoners’ press release stated, “because Sheriff Ahern leads emergency responses for Alameda County, Santa Rita staff have also been redirected to the Kincade Fire, which began on October 23 in Sonoma County. As a result, prisoners are simply locked down in their cells with little access to scheduled visits, telephones, or medical care.”

“The Sheriff takes on a lot of power positions, including being an emergency responder for all of Northern California,” Huang said. “So in the Kincaid fire he sends staff and then claims that he’s short staffed and so he’s put everybody on lockdown. I believe they lifted the lockdown today, so today is the first time these men have been able to move around in a while.”

On Friday, a prisoner died from an overdose at the jail. According to the Mercury News, this is the 8th death at the jail this year.

Huang is currently representing prisoners housed in the women’s jail in a lawsuit over conditions. “These are essentially the same complaints,” Huang said. “Despite two years of litigation, the jail hasn’t made any improvements, so now the prisoners are striking.”

In November, California State Senator Nancy Skinner announced that she supported calls for an audit of the jail, citing a stream of complaints including a recent lawsuit from a female prisoner who was forced to give birth in a jail cell.

Article published: 10/31/2019; Updated 2:00 p.m. 10/31/2019; Updated 11/1/19

Header Photo Source: Bay Area News Group

Citations:

Inmates End Hunger Strike and Work Stoppage at Santa Rita Jail“, The Independent, November 7, 2019.

Prisoners Stage One-day Hungerstrike and Work Stoppage Within Santa Rita Jail to Protest Filthy Conditions, Price Gouging and Abuse“, press release, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), Oct 30, 2019.

HUNGER STRIKE AND WORK STOPPAGE IN SANTA RITA JAIL CONTINUES TO THIRD DAY“, press release, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), November 1, 2019.

‘This jail runs on slave labor’: Inmates stage hunger strike, work stoppage over bad conditions“, The Mercury News, October 30, 2019. 

Yolanda Huang, personal interview, October 30, 2019.

Assistant Sheriff Nice, Santa Rita County Sheriff’s Office, personal interview, October 30, 2019.

Sergeant Ray Kelley, Public Information Officer, Santa Rita County Sheriff’s Office, personal interview, October 31, 2019.

IWOC Oakland (@iwoc_oakland). “Legal team back from visitation reports now strike has grown to 360-400 men plus more joining from the women’s side of the facility. All happening despite lockdown, no yard time or free movement. Word spreading cell to cell. #POWER #SantaRitaStrike”. [Tweet]. October 31, 2019. Accessed October 31, 2019.

Santa Rita inmates strike over dirty bathrooms, bug infestation in cells“, KTVU, October 31, 2019.

Hunger Strike: Santa Rita Inmates Rebel Over ‘Poor Conditions’“, The Patch, October 31, 2019.

About 400 inmates strike at Santa Rita Jail to protest living conditions“, The Daily Californian, November 1, 2019.

 

Background:

Woman who gave birth alone in Alameda County jail, screaming for hours, sues county“, East Bay Times, Bay Area News Group, August 22, 2018. 

Women sue Santa Rita over humiliating treatment; sheriff says facility is ‘best big jail in nation’“, KTVU, November 15, 2018.

State senator calls for audit of Alameda County sheriff’s office after ‘troubling reports’“, The Mercury News, Bay Area News Group, March 20, 2019.

Jail inmate dies over weekend after suspected drug overdose“, The Mercury News, October 30, 2019.