by Mary Ratcliff
In late September, prisoners in the Santa Clara County jails who are part of what they then called the Prisoners’ Human Rights Movement sent a letter to Sheriff Laurie Smith with a list of demands and a notice that in October the inmates would initiate a hunger strike to continue their “peaceful protest to end this torturous practice of solitary confinement and inhumane treatment until there is tangible and meaningful change for all prisoners – most whom are un-convicted pretrial detainees,” they stated.
The letter begins by recalling the Ashker settlement, the 2015 resolution of a lawsuit against solitary confinement in the state prison system that was initially filed by prisoners and fueled by a series of hunger strikes, the largest in history. Though it didn’t end solitary confinement, it severely limited it and released thousands of prisoners who had suffered the torture of solitary confinement for a decade or more into the relative freedom of general population.
Building on that precedent, the Santa Clara prisoners write: “Currently there are over a hundred prisoners held in solitary confinement throughout Santa Clara County jails.” Then they list their core demands:
- End meaningless classification review and the biased appeal process;
- End placement in solitary confinement when there exists no serious rule violation to merit such placement;
- End the policy and practice of denying prisoners sufficient clothing;
- End jail profiteering and exploitation of prisoners and their families through contract bidding of commissary vendors based on kickbacks and political incentives for campaign contributions;
- End recidivism and misappropriation of prisoners’ welfare funds.
In calling the strike, which was inspired by the nationwide prison strikes that began Sept 9, 2016, they wrote to their comrades: “Said hunger strike will begin at 12 midnight on Oct. 17, 2016, and will go on for two weeks, or 14 days. It will end on Oct. 30, 2016, at 12 midnight. This strike is not mandatory, but instead it is highly encouraged to all who are concerned, willing and able.
“We especially reach out to those who are healthy and inﬂuential. We lean upon you and ask that you utilize your inﬂuence to help further push and inspire this movement through your words and actions by leading through example.
“For those who might not be able to hold up for the full 14 days, it’s OK; just do your best. But this county does not acknowledge a hunger strike until you refuse nine straight meals through the course of three days, so we ask that at a minimum you hold out for four days so that your sacriﬁce and efforts are acknowledged.”
Three hundred prisoners, including many held in solitary confinement, joined the strike. And after only four days, jail officials held a meeting with about a hundred prisoners that resulted in suspension of the strike, which continues.
Three hundred prisoners, including many held in solitary confinement, joined the strike.
“In an unusual turn,” the San Jose Mercury News reported, “the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, the union for the rank-and-file enforcement officers of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, publicly sided with the inmates and released a statement lambasting Sheriff Laurie Smith for not being responsive enough to the protest of conditions ranging from how solitary confinement is doled out to inadequate clothing.”
Now, under their new name, Prisoners United of Silicon Valley, the strikers have issued their own newsletter and topped it with this statement:
Letter of appreciation
Greetings and solidarity to each other and all who participated in our initial hunger strike to end the arbitrary use of solitary confinement and inhumane treatment in Santa Clara County jails.
Before we set off into the body of this letter, we would like to extend our respect and appreciation to all who participated and sacrificed to provoke change. Although we came from diverse backgrounds – be it race, religion, color or creed – we set our differences aside and interlocked arms, forming a formidable force through civil disobedience in solidarity.
Allow the sacrifices each participant has made to be an inspiration to others to join in our struggle, allow our peaceful protest to demonstrate the power of unity and the positive changes that can be effected when we view each other not as a classification of inmates defined by the color of clothing issued to prisoners by administration but instead as human beings who share the same oppressive conditions.
For decades, prisoners have been slammed down in solitary confinement, locked away from education and rehabilitation programs or barred from participating in the fellowship of their faith due to administration beliefs. Meanwhile, our families are being exploited with practices that amount to price gouging through exorbitant commissary and phone rates, while they survive in a region with rising rent costs, plagued by a homeless epidemic in a city with ordinances that throw people in jail for having no place to live.
Let’s be thankful we have religious leaders and community organizations like De-Bug [Silicon Valley De-Bug is an excellent media, community organizing and entrepreneurial collective in San Jose] who rally behind us to champion our cause and see us as different, who are the difference, who see us as human beings, who are not persuaded by those in positions of authority. They define us by our allegations and classification rhetoric to pump fear in the heart of the public in their effort to kill our support base when they are preoccupied beating us to death like Michael Tyree. [Tyree was a mentally ill prisoner beaten to death by guards in 2015. Santa Clara County settled the wrongful death suit for $3.6 million, and the three guards facing murder charges were to go on trial Jan. 23. – ed.]
In the spirit of thankfulness, perhaps one might consider reaching out to their family and friends letting them know they are appreciated; we appreciate you and yours for your support, so Thank You!
Before we bring this letter of appreciation to a close, we would like to abreast the prisoner population that our hunger strike has not ended; it has been momentarily suspended. We gave the administration 30 days to bring about tangible changes for the benefit of all prisoners. We will continue our efforts until all of our core demands have been met.
We will not be duped by the superficial, such as movie night and a snack. We must persist as a collective that stands firm on principle. We must not be deluded by a carrot on a stick offered to us by an oppressed system that is fueled by greed and political ambitions.
We would like to abreast the prisoner population that our hunger strike has not ended; it has been momentarily suspended. We gave the administration 30 days to bring about tangible changes for the benefit of all prisoners.
To prevail in our struggle for prisoners’ human rights, we respectfully ask the prisoner population to exercise diplomacy, for it is not in our own interest to engage in combat with one another when we are fighting together to improve our conditions of confinement. We ask those of you who sway influence in your housing unit to work with each other to resolve conflict peacefully by promoting prisoner solidarity.
Let’s try not to provide ammunition to the administration that allows them to justify the reasoning for the use of solitary confinement. Our goal is to promote our cause by unifying like-minded people to support our next planned hunger strike.
In closing, we thank you for your time.
Prisoners United of Silicon Valley
The Prisoners United newsletter follows the letter of appreciation with updates spelling out how their demands are being met. On Oct. 21, they reported:
Prisoners formerly in solitary have been programming together on the yard with good spirits. They send their love and appreciation to all the organizations, individuals and media that showed support. The hunger strike is on suspension out of good faith that the administration will do the following:
- Classification: In 90 days, strikers will be able to down-class based on behavior into general population.
- Solitary confinement: Hunger strikers have been released from solitary with handshakes and hugs.
- Clothing: Additional clothing has been ordered.
- Overpriced commissary and welfare fund: Due to contract constraints with the commissary vendor, the administration has agreed to subsidize lowering commissary prices through the Welfare Fund, meanwhile shopping for another vendor after contract completion.
On Oct. 25, we spoke with administration. In our discussion, we made a few supplemental demands and requests:
- Phones: We requested to install more phones in each unit that will be releasing more prisoners out to program, as each unit was designed for no more than one prisoner. In addition, installing sufficient phones will reduce the potential rise of inmate fights as a result of overlap. For example, 4C and 4B have only one phone in each pod. We ask to install at least two of three more phones per pod. All other units within Main Jail North should have at least 10 phones in each pod.
- Televisions: We requested at least one more television in the units that house a high capacity of prisoners to accommodate Spanish and Vietnamese speakers as well as to reduce the potential rise of inmate fights as a result of incapacity.
- Sporks with handles: We requested sporks (spoon-fork eating utensils) with handles.
- Tattoo removal program: We requested a tattoo removal program.
There was a shortlist of additional requests and demands we made. This was just an example of the few. Currently there is a total of 10 small yards. Unfortunately, only one yard is being occupied by prisoners formerly in solitary, leaving a majority of prisoners who are still in solitary due to the administration’s claim of incapacity.
As of Dec. 15, 2016, prisoners have been down-classed and/or re-housed to the fourth floor. Prisoners formerly in solitary are now on the fourth floor. Who and why is still a question.
Prisoners who have been re-housed to the fourth floor are said to now only have 45 minutes of programming a day in comparison to 10 hours a day where they were housed prior.
Exercise shorts have yet to be received.
Commissary prices have yet to be reduced.
Dec. 22 update: Previously the name PHRM (Prisoners Human Rights Movement) was used as a representative body to harness the hunger strike in Santa Clara County’s main jail. The PHRM name was used due to lacking an actual name and was directly inspired by the PHRM in CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the state prison system). Moving forward, we will now be known as Prisoners United of Silicon Valley.
Bay View editor Mary Ratcliff can be reached at email@example.com or 415-671-0789. Contact Prisoners United of Silicon Valley via Silicon Valley De-Bug, 701 Lenzen Ave., San Jose, CA 95126, 408-971-4965, firstname.lastname@example.org or SV Debug on Facebook and Twitter.