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California: Protest Over Bay Area Jail Conditions

by Dale Chappell

Promising to “continue peaceful protest to end tortuous practices of solitary confinement,” Prisoners United, a coalition of prisoners in California’s Bay Area jails backed by civil rights groups, described the purpose of their complaints in an open letter to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors on October 15, 2017.

The prisoners said they began a hunger strike to put an end to the abusive use of solitary confinement, unfair grievance practices, insufficient food and dirty clothing. The jails allow a change of clothing just once a week.

Prisoners at four facilities were involved in the protest: the Glenn Dyer Detention Center and the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, plus the Main Jail and the Elmwood Correctional Complex in Santa Clara County.

The hunger strike began exactly one year after 100 Santa Clara prisoners ended another protest, when Sheriff Laurie Smith promised to improve jail conditions.

At Glenn Dyer, 82 prisoners remained locked in their cells 23 hours a day in segregation – even though most detainees at the facility were awaiting trial and had not been convicted.

“All the research points to just how bad it is for people’s mental health who are already suffering,” said Marlene Sanchez, associate director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice. “You don’t get to do programs. You’re just in there.”

Arrivals at the jail who are suspected of gang activity are placed in isolation through a process prisoners claimed was murky and arbitrary. Jail officials countered that no one is actually in solitary confinement, since those in segregation have windows and can still interact through their cell bars with other nearby prisoners. They also insisted that certain prisoners must be kept in isolation because they pose a risk to staff or need protection from other detainees due to their involvement in high-profile cases.

“By our policy and for officer safety and inmate safety, they can’t have physical contact,” said Sgt. Ray Kelly with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

His colleague, Capt. Dave Blanchard, confirmed that administrative segregation can last for weeks or even years. After 30,000 California prisoners went on a hunger strike in 2013, a class-action lawsuit – Ashker v. Governor of California – resulted in a limit on the amount of time state prisoners can spend in solitary, but the maximum is still 10 years. That limit does not apply to county jails, however.

At Glenn Dyer there are just 17 hours between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. in which to rotate prisoners from segregation for their daily hour of outside recreation, in groups of four or five. The rest of the day they remain in their cells.

At a rally held by supporters of the hunger-striking prisoners outside the offices of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, former prisoner Dauras Cyprian spoke. Now working for Ban the Box – a movement to bar employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal record – he spent six of his 26 years behind bars in segregation. Cyprian said the public needs to understand the privations it imposes on prisoners and how difficult they make it for them to return to society after their release.

In Alameda County, jail policy requires daily monitoring of each prisoner who refuses to eat, no matter how many there are. With over 2,000 prisoners at the Santa Rita Jail set to join the hunger strike, officials agreed to review their policies and the prisoners agreed to suspend their protest on October 19, 2017.

“It was going to be taxing on us, because we would’ve had to individually monitor each striking person,” Sgt. Kelly stated.

But he also indicated the prisoners could expect little in the way of changes.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of concessions by our jail, because I think our jail does what it’s supposed to do, and it does it right,” he said.




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