Calif. county jail inmates end 10-day hunger strike despite lack of concessions
One inmate’s father said the hunger strike was “all about being treated like a human”
By Alana Minkler and Marisa Endicott
The Press Democrat
SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. — About 90 inmates in the Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility recently participated in a 10-day hunger strike to advocate for more time out of their cells, better visitation hours and cheaper commissary costs, authorities and family members said.
It’s the latest in a string of hunger strikes related to what those in the jail have called sub par conditions that have worsened since the onset of the pandemic.
People held in the G module, a general population group at the jail, initiated their hunger strike March 23, according to Rob Dillion, a public information officer for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. He explained that many jail participants refused county-prepared food but ate food purchased from the jail’s commissary. Some, though, opted to forgo all food.
The strike ended Saturday as it became apparent that jail conditions were unlikely to improve, according to a participant’s father who wished to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation against his son behind bars. Dillion confirmed that no operational changes had been made as a result of the strike.
The hunger strike was “all about being treated like a human,” the father said. “I understand they’ve done things wrong, but to be treated like animals in there — my son told me that one of the sergeants in there made a comment that he wouldn’t feed this stuff to his own dog.”
Inmates wanted free phone calls, tablets five days a week, additional time out of their cells and hair cutting equipment all week, according to Dillion. They’re also “frustrated that commissary is too expensive,” he added.
Out-of-cell time is severely limited, sometimes to an hour or less each day, according to family members and friends who reached out to The Press Democrat but wanted to remain unnamed to avoid possible consequences for their loved ones in the jail. Not enough free time is provided, they said, for everyone to take showers, make calls or prepare meals from commissary items.
“They run the facility more like a high-security prison,” said a woman whose fiance was a part of the hunger strike at the jail. “It feels like basically 24-hour lockdown. They barely get out of their cells.”
She said she is lucky if she gets five minutes on the phone before her fiance has to go to shower and take care of anything else he needs to do in what is sometimes a 30-minute window.
The man whose son is jailed said he talks with the family members of other inmates as he waits in the jail and they share similar stories of not being able to visit or speak with their loved ones. Many are unable to make trips to the jail during the time allotted for inmates because of their work schedules. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the men were allowed more time out of their cells and more time for visits, he said.
Dillion said out-of-cell time aligns with state regulations and varies based on security and safety considerations. On average, the G module now gets 8 1/2 hours outside of cells each week, he said.
It would be impossible to accurately compare pre-pandemic out-of-cell time with the current standard for groups protesting, he said, due to changes in where inmates are held.
“Spending time in a small cell is very challenging,” said John Alden, director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, which is the county’s civilian-led law enforcement oversight agency.
“Being able to get out — to stretch, breathe, exercise, see the sun — is really essential to maintain your mental health.”
While Alden was unfamiliar with the details of this most recent strike, “as a general rule, I’ve heard both people incarcerated and jail staff complain about lack of out of cell time,” he said. Short staffing is often the culprit, he added, which can lead to tighter restrictions on inmates and burnout and stress on staff.
Staffing issues are playing a role in visitation limits, as well. Currently, visits are confined to 30 minutes Saturday, Sunday and Monday, between 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., according to the jail’s website.
Visitation had increased to pre-pandemic levels of 15 hours per week in July 2021 but was again reduced in July 2022 due to low staffing levels, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The jail, which is under the authority of the Sheriff’s Office, has previously come under scrutiny for its management of inmate communication with the outside world.
A June 2021 Sonoma County civil grand jury investigation found Sonoma County jail phone call costs, at 20 cents per minute, far exceeded prices in state and federal prisons and that proceeds that should be designated for jail programming was instead diverted to staff salaries and other purposes. The report also noted steep markups on commissary goods.
Senate Bill 1008, the “Keep Families Connected Act,” which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2022 and went into effect Jan. 1, 2023, requires free phone calls to and from state-run and juvenile detention facilities and bars city and county agencies from generating revenue from jail communication services. The Sheriff’s Office said it does provide free phone calls and that it now gets no revenue, and the current 7 cents per minute for local calls is charged by the jail’s phone service provider, ViaPath Technologies.
“We have no authority over a privately owned company to force them to provide free services such as phone calls,” Dillion said, adding that he is not aware of state funding to cover those costs or an organization that provides those services for free.
Under the new law, people can also make unlimited free calls during booking and upon release to arrange for housing and rides.
In 2020, San Francisco negotiated a contract with its jail communications provider for the city to pay a fixed monthly rate rather than having callers pay per minute to the vendor.
People incarcerated in Sonoma County’s jail, whose population includes many who have yet to be convicted of a crime, have continued to draw attention to ongoing problems. The late March hunger strike is the fourth at the jail in the last two years over similar conditions and complaints.
In January 2021, about 20 inmates participated in a similar strike to demand free phone calls, video visits and additional access to work assignments, 10 months after the pandemic halted in-person visits. That reportedly led to 10 minutes of free calls daily on top of paid calls for those incarcerated.
A few months later, in April 2021, more than 90 inmates initiated another strike, which called for the reinstatement of in-person visitation. In-person visits resumed, with restrictions, in May 2021. But in August 2022, multiple modules went on an approximately weeklong hunger strike over limited out-of-cell time and visitation hours.
The woman whose fiance is locked up spent about three months inside the jail in 2020 and experienced similar conditions.
“It was really hard. I feel like no human should be treated the way they treated us in there,” said the woman, who now works as a counselor. She cited isolation, poor quality food, expensive unhealthy commissary options and inadequate programming as some of what she encountered.
She wasn’t hopeful that officials would meaningfully address concerns, but the decision to participate in a hunger strike showed the lengths those inside felt they need to go to, she said.
“It’s crazy they had to do something like that to give the message they need to be treated a little better,” she said.
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