A planned one-day hunger strike and work stoppage by inmates at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin stretched for an additional five days before coming to an end Tuesday afternoon.
An attorney who spoke on behalf of the inmates estimated as many as 500 to 700 inmates participated in the actions. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office counted substantially fewer participants; about 100 inmates stopped eating jail food and about 50 inmates quit their jobs.
“I would not give this the recognition of hunger strikes that have occurred in history,” said Alameda County Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly. He noted inmates still ate food purchased through the jail commissary. “Nobody went hungry.”
Organizers wrote that the action was staged to protest unsanitary conditions and mistreatment by jail staff, including alleged neglect of medical and mental health emergencies.
Inmates complained they are exposed to biohazards and forced to clean up after heroin addicts who involuntarily defecate and vomit on the floors, toilets, and showers of communal cells. So far, nine people have died in custody in Santa Rita this year, including the death of a man last month who apparently died from a drug overdose.
The detainees issued a statement and a list of 26 demands to improve conditions inside the jail. Among other things, they requested better and more nutritious food; lower markups for items in the jail commissary, phone calls, and video visitations; more frequent cleaning of clothes and holding cells; and better access to lawyers and access to a law library.
“Detainees are only provided cleaning supplies once a week … [and] are contracting lice, bed bugs and flesh-eating staph infections from the MRSA virus,” according to the statement.
Oakland civil rights attorney Yolanda Huang announced the action at a press conference last Wednesday in front of the sprawling 113-acre campus that holds up to 4,000 inmates. Huang said inmates contacted her seeking help.
Huang currently represents women inmates at Santa Rita Jail and Oakland’s Glen Dyer Jail in a federal lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office. That complaint alleges deliberate unconstitutional policies at both facilities that cause women to suffer chronic sleep deprivation.
Kelly said the strike did not impact jail operations. Some overtime was required while the inmates were striking, but he attributed that to about 300 inmates from Sonoma County who were evacuated to Santa Rita because of raging wildfires in the North Bay.
Some inmates told deputies they felt intimidated by others to participate in both the hunger strike and work stoppage, Kelly said. He estimated about 50 inmates quit their jobs. To pick up the slack, other inmates who wanted to work were hired, including some women inmates who helped keep the kitchen going, he said.
“We received an apology letter today from the inmates who quit asking for their jobs back,” he said.