Last week, 125 prisoners at the Glenn Dyer Detention Facility in downtown Oakland—over 30 percent of the prisoners housed there—participated in a five-day hunger strike to protest what they say are abusive conditions of isolation and poor healthcare in Alameda County jails.
“I am on hunger strike, as well as many many others here at Glenn Dyer Detention Facility,” reads a letter sent from the jail dated October 17, the third day of the hunger strike, and signed “Prisoners United,” a group formed for purposes of the hunger strike.
“We are locked in our cells all day,” the letter states, saying that “out of cell time” is insufficient and “boils down to [the assigned housing deputies’] decision, which are mostly arbitrary and capricious.” The letter also outlines grievances alleging inadequate access to courts and attorneys, telephone calls, a variety of healthy food and recreation time, which are all required under California’s minimum standards codes for local detention centers.
The same day, over 30 supporters rallied outside of the Alameda County administrative building, where the county supervisors’ offices are located, to draw attention to the striking prisoners. “They are mothers and fathers in there, our parents, our siblings, our children,” said Yolanda Triana, who used to work as a reserve deputy at Santa Rita Jail in the 1970s before quitting and becoming an advocate for reform. “They are human. Give them basic dignity.”
“We’re out here, to make sure [the sheriff and county supervisors] know that we’re paying attention and we’re listening,” said Marlene Sanchez, associate director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), an Oakland organization that that works with young people affected by the criminal justice system.
Speakers drew attention to both detention facilities run by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department—Glenn Dyer and Santa Rita Jail, in Dublin. They stressed the five allegations that are being made by prisoners, who are calling for an end to the use of indefinite solitary confinement, subjective practices for addressing grievances, and overuse of lockdown, which is when prisoners are confined to their cell when there is a disturbance in the facility. The prisoners also say that they are being provided with insufficient food and unsanitary clothing.
“I [know] a young man in Santa Rita who has been there for five years, and has been in insolation for four, and that is unacceptable,” said Sheri Costa, the director of AL Costa Community Development Center, an East Bay organization dedicated to helping families with detained and incarcerated loved ones. She has been doing this work for 18 years. “We have people that are only getting out of cell twice a month,” she said.
After rallying, advocates marched two blocks down the street to the sheriff’s offices, where they delivered a letter listing the five demands to Internal Affairs Captain Emmanuel Christy.
Twenty percent of prisoners in Glenn Dyer—or 83 people—are held in “administrative segregation,” in which prisoners are held alone, in cells separate from general population, for a minimum of 23 hours per day, according to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. That number is 243 at Santa Rita, or 12 percent of the prisoners currently held there.
Last week’s strike comes four years after 30,000 California prisoners participated in a massive statewide hunger strike statewide protesting indefinite solitary confinement. At that time, California prisons held over 3,000 prisoners indefinitely—sometimes for decades—in concrete cells called the Security Housing Unit (SHU), where prisoners were confined for a minimum of 22.5 hours per day.
That strike turned into a class action lawsuit, Ashker v Brown, after the Center for Constitutional Rights took over the case in 2012 from Todd Ashker, a long-term California SHU prisoner who had initially filed the suit against the state in 2009. The 2015 settlement ended the use of indefinite SHU terms in California state prisons and limited SHU confinement to a maximum of ten years. Throughout the lawsuit, California Department of Corrections officials maintained that the SHU was not solitary confinement because prisoners had access to a larger cell with a partial opening to the sky for 90 minutes per day.
While there is no strict definition of solitary confinement in California law, Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture from 2010 to 2016, has defined solitary confinement as “any regime where an inmate is held in isolation from others, except guards, for at least 22 hours a day.” More than 15 days of solitary confinement, he believes, is prolonged isolation and should be banned by governments.
Alameda County Sheriff’s department officials say that the county doesn’t practice solitary confinement in its jails. This is because prisoners are able to have verbal communication with nearby prisoners, and because they have access to a telephone, shower, laundry, television, and exercise when they are out of their cell for one hour per day, said Public Information Officer Sergeant Ray Kelly.
Kelly said that administrative segregation is used for prisoners who are high-profile, have mental health issues, are highly assaultive, or are at risk in when in spaces with other prisoners. A system of checks and balances is employed when deciding to keep someone in administrative segregation, he said, but there are no maximum time limits on how long someone can be kept there.
Responding to the prisoners’ other complaints, Kelly said that the jails’ food is “not a home cooked good meal” but that “it will sustain you and keep you healthy.” Referring to both the food and clothing offered, Kelly said, “We go above state and federal law.” He states that inmates are able to submit grievances to officers in the Grievance Unit and that the jails are accredited by the American Correctional Association and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement.
“We’re kind of surprised,” Kelly said of the hunger strike, speaking last week as it began its third day. “We obviously have to monitor [the hunger strike] and respect their right to protest,” he added.
The advocates supporting the striking prisoners disagree with Kelly’s assertions that solitary confinement doesn’t exist in Alameda County jails. Based on her communications with prisoners and their families, Costa said she believes the conditions Kelly described are not being practiced on at least one floor of Glenn Dyer. Sanchez said she believes that “they are using solitary confinement for everything,” including to try to break up the hunger strike organizing.
In addition to 23 hours-per-day isolation, the advocates also allege that prisoners are not getting sufficient healthcare. Costa’s nephew, Mario Martinez, died in Santa Rita in July, 2015. His family is currently suing Corizon, the healthcare provider in the jails at the time, and Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern for wrongful death. The suit alleges medical negligence regarding untreated nasal growths that, combined with Martinez’s asthma, made it very hard for him to breathe.
Sanchez, who has been in touch with prisoners and their family members, has been filing grievances and incident reports on behalf of those incarcerated at Glenn Dyer. She recently filed an incident report with the sheriff’s office alleging that a prisoner in Glenn Dyer had been denied access to water for three days. “To deny a human being water is inhumane treatment,” she wrote. He was allegedly denied medical care, she added, after being bitten by a spider, and it “wasn’t until he could not walk and was about to undergo cardiac arrest” that he was “rushed to the hospital,” she wrote.
Kelly declined to comment on these allegations.
Currently, the sheriff, along with Corizon and the county, is facing litigation in two other suits alleging wrongful deaths at Santa Rita: those on behalf of Bryan Steicher, who died in June, 2014, and Gary Oldham, who died in March 3rd,, 2015, according to lawsuits. Steicher’s suit is brought by his mother and daughter, who allege that he died after multiple requests for his sleep apnea machine were denied. Oldham’s suit is brought by his mother, who alleges that he was found hanging from a bedsheet after his jailers failed to follow proper protocols for monitoring a mentally disabled prisoner who was potentially suicidal.
In all three suits, the sheriff denies the allegations, according to legal documents.
In a legal filing for the case of Mario Martinez, the defendants’ lawyers, Nancy E. Hudgins and Matthew M. Grigg, “admit that the decedent was a Santa Rita inmate, and that the jail is in Alameda County and is operated via the County’s sheriff’s office,” but refute all allegations that Martinez was untreated or treated negligently.
In a legal filing for the case of Bryan Steicher, the defendants’ lawyers, Hudgins and Grigg, deny that Steicher made repeated requests for his sleep apnea machine and all other allegations.
In a legal filing for the case of Gary Oldham, the defendants’ lawyer, Timothy Murphy, writes that his client will “admit that [deputy sheriffs] discovered decedent hanging in his cell by a sheet” but denied that defendants “failed to engage in adequate welfare checks or supervision.”
Kelly did not comment on the suits, referring questions to Alameda County Counsel Donna Ziegler. Ziegler said she was familiar with the case of Mario Martinez but not the other two, and could not offer comment at this time.
Monthly reports—which were obtained by Costa through a public records request as part of the family’s research into Martinez’s death—written by Calvin Benton, a doctor and medical consultant to Alameda County jails, show that at least 24 people died in Alameda County jails between the beginning of 2013 and the end of 2015. The causes of death are not stated in these reports, which are monthly medical “quality assurance reports” Benton delivers to the Alameda County Sheriff’s office.
Last week’s Glenn Dyer hunger strike was followed this week by a similar one in Santa Clara County jails, which themselves were a continuation of strikes from 2016.
Advocates and supporters plan to bring the issues raised by the hunger strike to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ Public Protection meeting on November 9.