Activists bring concerns about jail conditions to Alameda County supervisors

On Thursday morning, about 20 Oakland activists and community members gathered outside the Alameda County Administration Building before a meeting called by the Board of Supervisors to discuss conditions in the county jails. Bagels in hand, they pledged to obtain two pieces of information from the sheriff’s department: One, the department’s policy on how it classifies prisoners for housing and eligibility for privileges like family visits and level of yard access. They were seeking that information to help prisoners file grievances regarding discrimination they allege is embedded in the classification process. Two, they wanted to determine an administrative pathway for prisoners to get re-classified out of administrative segregation—the mandated isolation otherwise known as solitary confinement.

This was the second meeting of the Board of Supervisors’ Public Protections Committee since October, when 212 incarcerated people, members of the group Prisoners United, went on a five-day hunger strike to protest conditions in the county’s two jails, Santa Rita Jail and Glenn E. Dyer Detention Facility. The strike, from October 15 to October 21, also spread to Santa Clara County Main Jail in San Jose and Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas. Strikers called for five demands: An end to “the practice of indefinite solitary confinement; subjective grievance practices; abuse of discretion to lockdown; insufficient and unsanitary clothing; and insufficient food and starvation for indigent prisoners,” according to a letter written by members of Prisoners United on October 17.

In response to these demands, the committee convened on November 9 to inquire into the prisoners’ grievances and to hear reports from Alameda County Sheriff’s Department representatives. No formal action was taken at this meeting. Several weeks later, 168 prisoners participated in a second hunger strike from December 1 to December 12, according to the sheriff’s department.

Since then, two major allegations have rocked the department. At the beginning of January, six women sued the department for alleged abuse and mistreatment, alleging they were coerced into having abortions, among other forms of mistreatment. One woman said she was forced to give birth in administrative segregation alone, which the department later confirmed. In another incident, Deputy Joseph Bailey was arrested on January 17 in connection with allegedly facilitating an attack on an inmate in Santa Rita jail.

John Jones III, a community organizer with Communities United to Restore Youth Justice (CURYJ), the group that organized the demonstration, said he hoped these incidents would prompt the sheriff’s department to look more critically at its own operations and enable the board to ask tougher questions.  “The sheriff is no longer in a position to say everything is under control,” he said.

Outside Thursday’s meeting, the community attendees carried signs that called for an end to solitary confinement and asked residents to call the Board of Supervisors to voice their support for Prisoners United. Before entering the meeting, they formed a circle and spoke in turn, airing their concerns and planning their strategy for approaching the supervisors. “There’s other issues with the jails, don’t get me wrong,” said Marlene Sanchez, associate director of CURYJ, an organization that works with youth affected by the criminal justice system. Sanchez said her organization’s role in the hunger strike has been to serve as a “container” for prisoners’ grievances. “But all the issues have been amplified by these two main issues—classification and isolation,” she said.

By classification, Sanchez meant the process by which the department determines a prisoner’s eligibility for privileges like family visits and telephone access, as well as where they’re housed. Sanchez and others believe the classification system relies disproportionately on demographic—and therefore discriminatory—factors like a person’s neighborhood and ethnicity. And by isolation, she was referring to administrative segregation, which the activists believe is a problem because of its documented long-term effects on mental and physical health.

After an hour on the pavement, the community members moved inside to attend the meeting, where they spread out through the audience and periodically stepped to the podium to ask questions. However, by the end of the 1.5-hour meeting, they had only received partial answers to both requests.

Alameda County Sheriff’s Department Commander Tom Madigan delivered a PowerPoint presentation that followed up on the demands of the strikers and aimed to address their concerns. According to Madigan, his department had since conducted a “full review” of conditions since the November meeting and found no serious concerns. Madigan’s presentation concluded both Glenn Dyer and Santa Rita meet the minimum jail standards mandated by the California Code of Regulations, Title 15 and Title 24. The Alameda County Health Inspector inspects both jails annually for health and nutritional violations.

To a limited extent, Madigan’s PowerPoint addressed the two key concerns of Prisoners United. He showed several slides explaining the timeline of the intake classification process and some factors that affect how prisoners are classified, including the propensity for violence, criminal history and “sophistication,” and gang affiliation. But he did not provide details on how deputies assess the nuances of factors like gang affiliation. Full disclosure of such details, said Madigan, might enable prisoners to cheat the system—for instance, they could avoid getting labeled as a gang member, thus potentially avoiding getting classified into administrative segregation.

Community members, however, argued that failing to disclose such details makes it difficult to know whether the classification process depends on parameters like race and neighborhood—which in turn makes it difficult for prisoners to file grievances if they believe themselves to be misclassified, or if they believe the classification process unfairly discriminates against them.

“Inmates don’t know their rights of the grievance process,” Jones told the supervisors. “So how do they know what to grieve?”

At the meeting, Madigan also addressed concerns about what he referred to as administrative isolation, or A/I. “We do not practice indefinite solitary confinement,” he said.

According to Madigan, 11 percent of the total jail population across both jails is in administrative isolation at any given time. Fifty percent spend more than two months in administrative isolation, and 9 percent remain for a year or longer.

Individuals classified for administrative isolation are housed alone in single cells, with recreation time provided on an individual basis. Under California law, individuals in administrative isolation must receive a minimum of three hours of exercise time, or “pod time,” per week.

At the meeting, Madigan displayed data he’d collected over two weeks that showed these prisoners were allowed an average of about six hours of pod time per week. But back in October, according to the East Bay Express, a hunger strike participant wrote in a letter stating that he was frequently denied those three hours.

Additionally, since the first meeting of the Public Protection Committee, Madigan said, his department had re-classed approximately 40 incarcerated people into a less severe form of administrative isolation known as “maximum separation.” This classification allows people to mingle with others in maximum separation and basically doubles their weekly pod time according to Madigan’s data.

In response to prisoners’ complaints about inadequate food, Madigan presented the Board of Supervisors with pictures of a day of meals, noting that the department provides an average of 2,600 calories per inmate per day.

“When I was deputy sheriff, I ate these every day,” he told District 1 Supervisor Scott Haggerty, referring to the meals distributed at Santa Rita. He encouraged the supervisor to “come on out” and pay the jails a visit.

Madigan said prisoners’ sheets were washed weekly and their blankets every three weeks, and that they washed their own jumpsuits. At this, District 2 Supervisor Richard Valle asked why prisoners were only provided with one jumpsuit—a lingering question from last November’s meeting. “If they’re doing the washing and drying and folding, what’s the deal with giving them more? Why did we come up with this idea of one?” Valle asked.

Madigan replied the norm of one jumpsuit was “longstanding.” He noted that providing prisoners with than one jumpsuit would lead to an “increase in work” for deputies.

“Yeah, but [the prisoners are] doing the work,” noted Haggerty.

Madigan replied that he would bring up the possibility for multiple jumpsuits with the sheriff. He concluded his presentation by stating that the sheriff’s office complies with local, state and federal mandates and minimums.

After Madigan spoke, people queued up to address the supervisors, including Sanchez, who brought forth concerns from Prisoners United. Sanchez said prisoners had told her their grievance forms were being “ripped up,” that there weren’t enough staff members to ensure prisoners had a proper amount of pod time, and that the listed prices for commissary items did not reflect additional surcharges and copays.

Julia Arroyo spoke next, and told the story of her husband’s struggle to keep up with his school coursework since getting transferred from San Francisco County Jail’s administrative isolation facility to Glenn Dyer’s—before, she said, the San Francisco Unified School District would provide him with interactive programs. In Glenn Dyer, she said, “he’s not been able to ask anyone questions.”

Arroyo also brought up concerns other incarcerated people had asked her to deliver to the board. Among other complaints, she told supervisors that the weekly laundry prisoners received often came back dirty and that they were getting segregated by race and ethnicity.

Toward the end of the meeting, Jones brought the conversation back to Madigan’s assertion that the sheriff’s office is meeting federal and state minimum requirements. Even if this is true, Jones said, he had faith that Alameda County could go above and beyond these standards.

“We shouldn’t just comply with federal regulations,” he said.

No follow-up meeting is scheduled for the Public Protection Committee.

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