OC Jail Inmates On Hunger Strike Over 'Inhuman' Use Of Solitary

This stock photo shows Orange County's Theo Lacy jail, where inmates say they have gone on hunger strike to protest the "inhuman" use of solitary-like conditions. (Photo by 888bailbond/Flickr Creative Commons)

Inmates in Orange County's jails say they've launched their second hunger strike this year to protest the alleged misuse of solitary confinement.

Some inmates at the Theo Lacy Facility and the county's Intake Release Center started to refuse food at breakfast on Wednesday, Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said.

She insisted it is not their policy to keep inmates in prolonged isolation.

Inmates planned to refuse meal trays and refrain from buying commissary snacks for three to four days "to get the message across," said Philip Sloan, who's awaiting trial in the Theo Lacy Facility on charges of felony assault, among other charges.

"We are protesting the overall treatment — or mistreatment — of inmates of all ethnic backgrounds," Sloan told LAist in a phone interview. "We are still human beings ... We've got constitutional rights."

Daisy Ramirez, coordinator of the ACLU of Southern California's jails project, said many inmates' housing arrangements are virtually solitary confinement. Inmates are "being locked in very small, windowless cells 22 to 23 hours a day without any human contact or activity," she said.

"A lot of the people that we have been in communication with fall under that situation," said Ramirez, adding that it "exacerbates mental health issues."

Isolation has become the "go-to thing to do," she said, claiming that inmates are isolated for very "arbitrary" and "varied" reasons. "There is no consistency in the way that it is used."

Braun declined to comment on individual inmates' housing circumstances, but she said some require separation.

A letter from inmate organizers posted on Facebook attacks the Sheriff's Department's "Extremely Inhuman and Torturous" use of "Indefinite Solitary Isolation." It says inmates have been kept in disciplinary isolation cells, each referred to as "The Hole," for months and even years, even though they're "designed for punishment ONLY, up to 30 days maximum."

"Disciplinary isolation is something that is used, but we do it within protocol," Braun said, who declined to say whether inmates have been held in isolation for more than 30 days. The jails "are inspected regularly," and "we consistently receive very high remarks," she added.

Ramirez said she was told that about 1,000 inmates were refusing to eat. Orange County's jails have a total of about 6,000 beds. They hold individuals awaiting trial and those who have already been sentenced.

Braun declined to confirm the number of protesters, adding that the department doesn't consider someone to be on a hunger strike until they have not eaten for three straight days. At that point, officials activate a protocol that includes monitoring the inmate's medical condition, she said.

The ACLU has been documenting abuses in Orange County's jails since 2015, said Ramirez, who said the group's findings include excessive force, violence instigated by jailers and a grievance system that can result in retaliation.

In July, inmates took turns refusing food over the course of 10 days to protest what they and the Orange County ACLU claimed was prolonged isolation, lack of access to medical care and excessive use of force, among other things, according to the Voice of OC. Undersheriff Don Barnes said the allegations were "not valid."

The sheriff's department estimated that at the July protest's height 150 inmates were refusing food. The ACLU estimated the number at 200.


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