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Day 5: Hunger Strike in Santa Clara County Jails
by R. Robertson
Thursday Apr 19th, 2018 3:01 PM
On April 15th, Prisoners United of Silicon Valley began a hunger strike in protest of solitary confinement, grievance system negligence, and meaningless classification reviews, among other injustices. As the strike enters day five, prison reform advocate Jose Valle says there is cause for concern, particularly since medical staff is not checking strike participants for hydration levels or weight loss.
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With participants from every unit of the main jail in Santa Clara County except the mental health unit, and many more in the Elmwood Correctional Complex in Milpitas, the 2018 hunger strike enters its fifth day. Silicon Valley De-Bug organizer Jose Valle said in an interview today that there is cause for concern, particularly since medical staff is not checking strike participants for hydration levels or weight loss.

Valle explained that by not measuring striking prisoners' vital medical statistics, the prison administration can deny that a hunger strike is taking place. "But that is not the case," he stated.

Silicon Valley De-Bug is a group that, amongst other services, gives support to families with incarcerated relatives by helping them work through the quagmire of prison regulations. Valle, who works with families, emphasized that inmates are on the front line of prison reform. He said that reform is in the works but that progress has been slow.

In 2015, Michael Tyree, a mental health detainee in Santa Clara County’s Main Jail was waiting for a bed to receive mental health services on the outside. Before Michael could lay his head down on that bed, three correctional officers beat him to death. A jury ultimately found those three correctional officers guilty of murder.

"There was a huge outcry after Tyree's death," Valle said, and with inspiration from the Pelican Bay hunger strikers of 2013, incarcerated people in Santa Clara County’s Main Jail began their first hunger strike in 2016 to demand an end to cruel and unusual punishment and inhumane conditions. Due to that strike, the jail administration agreed to make changes.

Over 70% of Santa Clara County’s jail population are pretrial detainees, many of whom remain fighting their cases for five years or more because they can’t afford bail. When prisoners are booked, they are classified according to their charges or gang allegations. Based on classification, prisoners can be housed indefinitely in maximum security housing units without any real path to downclass to a less restrictive setting. "This punitive and subjective classification system leaves this population to be vulnerable to correctional officer violence and mental health crises," Valle wrote. "Prisoners need prosocial time out of cell, they need to be treated with dignity and have access to education and rehabilitation programs."

"This classification system disregards in-custody behavior because many prisoners with zero in-custody write ups or charges for five years or more still remain in a maximum security setting," Valle said.

Despite a negotiated end to the first hunger strike and new jail reforms, in 2017 the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved $45,000 for a taser pilot project in the jails. Previously, tasers were banned from the Sheriff’s department due to related deaths. "There is still a poisonous culture of prison floor staff," Valle said in an interview today. As day five begins, there is cause for concern. The 2016 Prisoners United of Silicon Valley hunger strike ended through negotiations after five days, and a second hunger strike in 2017 ended with resolution in just three.

Photo by Chris Guy, East London Prison, under Creative Commons License, flickr.com.