(Photo via Grant Durr/Unsplash)

Inmates in Santa Clara County’s main jail went on a hunger strike this week to protest the jail’s largest COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic’s start in March.

On Wednesday afternoon, the sheriff’s office reported 109 new COVID-19 cases. That same night, the hunger strike began in the main jail’s 7B wing to protest unsanitary living conditions and lack of policy that prisoners believe have led to the outbreaks.

One of the 40 -plus inmates participating in the hunger strike in 7B, Ceaser Torres, said the hunger strike is the only way to get the change inmates so desperately need.

“It seems that the jail and the facility to the sheriff’s office doesn’t really take us seriously, unless we do something extreme,” Torres said.

The 7B unit was the site of a COVID-19 outbreak in December, which coincided with an indoor private party of multiple unmasked correctional deputies and supervisors that surfaced on Facebook.

“I think the outbreak is the result of utter negligence of jail administration and staff– that or just institutional ineptitude to do the basic responsibilities,” Raj Jayadev, co-founder of grassroots community organization Silicon Valley De-Bug said. “And the thing I’ll point to is these photos of correctional officers throwing a party.”

Jayadev said all the jail outbreaks likely originate with staff since they are the only ones leaving and entering the jails.

Another De-Bug organizer, Jose Valle, who works closely with the inmate population, said everyone in 7B has experienced COVID-19 symptoms. If they did not test positive, it is because they refused testing so they would not have to be moved to another, likely dirtier cell, Valle said.

Valle said the latest December outbreak in 7B was the second outbreak in that housing unit since March.

Wednesday’s new reported 109 active positive cases is comprised of all the county’s jails.

By Friday, the active case count jumped to 127 new cases in the county since Jan. 5 — accounting for quarter of the 501 cumulative jail infections since March.

January also marked the top three highest single day new infections within the county’s incarcerated population, with 38 on Friday, 35 on Jan. 2 and 36 on Jan. 4. And on Tuesday, a day before the hunger strike, the county reported the fifth highest single-day new infections with 22 cases.

In response to the significant outbreaks, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office has been working with public defenders to facilitate additional releases that could start as early as next week.

“When COVID first happened in March, we put together a team that actually really quickly ended up with about a one third reduction in the jail population,” Assistant District Attorney David Angel said. “So we’ve kind of pulled the same team together again now.”

Angel said the releases were a success because they were able to significantly reduce the jail capacity without seeing an increase in recidivism rates or spikes in crime.

He also said it’s unclear how many inmates will be released and would have a better idea in the next week, but it will be unlikely that there will be another 1,000 released like the first round.

“We are looking for people at the end of their sentence,” Angel said.

The DA’s office is also looking for solutions to get those released into housing, treatment and supervision, and perhaps electronic monitoring, Angel said.

But for inmates and advocates, additional release is only one of the six demands to end the hunger strike.

Prisoners are also demanding visitation rights to be unsuspended and for the county’s department of public health and correctional health to create a plan to be shared with inmates to ensure the living conditions in the jail are up to health and medical treatment standards.

“The cells there are just very unsanitary, it’s just awful,” Anastacia Bravo, Torres’ wife said. “I’m surprised no one has died yet.”

Torres has been incarcerated in the county for eight years and was one of the inmates who tested positive in the latest COVID-19 outbreak in 7B.

He shared that he has taken part in a yearly hunger strike since 2016. The demands differ but are related to the living conditions in the jail, he said.

His longest strike was his first year, where he didn’t eat for 12 days and lost 17 pounds.

This latest hunger strike marks his 5th one, and to him, may be the most personal.

“You really start to feel it on the third or fourth day,” Torres said. “But I know how much my body can take. I can go 12, 13, 14 days and I’m willing to wait.”

Upon testing positive, Torres was moved to the jail’s infirmary to quarantine with other COVID-19 positive people. After five days, he was moved to floor 6A, which is known to house those who suffer with mental health conditions.

“The one I had to go into had feces on the wall and I had to clean it. There was dirt, like moldy foods crusted to the floor. Lots of writings on the wall and I don’t want to be discussing anything but one of the cells also had semen on the desk,” Torres said. “It just made us more sick.”

He said when nurses came in to take their vitals, fevers were up, and blood pressure was down.

“The next day I had terrible coughs and a headache. The body aches were bad,” Torres said. “It was hard to have COVID, especially to clean all that up when you can barely breathe. I still haven’t gotten my sense of smell back.”

According to a survey of 30 inmates conducted by Silicon Valley De-Bug, all said they did not have enough cleaning supplies to keep themselves and their cells clean.

The same survey found that 85 percent of inmates are in bunks in dorm settings that are less than six feet apart, 100 percent said they were forced to share bathrooms without sanitation between uses and 95 percent said phones were not sanitized in between uses.
In an email, the sheriff’s office said they were aware of the hunger strike and working toward solutions.

“We take the health and welfare of those in our care seriously and we will work closely with Custody Health Services regarding those who elect to participate,” the email reads. “Our Office will continue to work to address and resolve concerns related to jail operations.”

Jayadev said inmates, family members and advocates have been working for months in an effort to change inmate living conditions.

“That’s why we sort of reached this hunger strike,” Jayadev said. “They’ve [inmates] have exhausted every option and have done everything they possibly can.”

He said they’ve gone through the conventional routes offered to them: file grievances, appeal grievance responses, attempt to go through the court system and have family and friends advocate on their behalf.

Torres said he has filed two grievances in January but does not expect much to change. In his experience, hunger strikes are the only thing that propels the sheriff’s office to make significant changes.

“I’ve been here for so many years and I’ve seen the changes that they’re capable of making. And I know that the captain of the Sheriff’s office has the authority to give us what we are asking for, which are really simple things.” Torres said.

Torres tested negative from COVID-19 in late December but is still dealing with some symptoms. His wife worries that the hunger strike will lead to more health complications.

“For my husband to starve himself just to get some basic rights for himself I don’t think is fair,” Bravo said. “I don’t want him to do it, especially since he is still recovering from COVID. But this is his fifth hunger strike and he is determined to make a change.”