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Sonoma County jail hunger strike continues, now amid a COVID-19 outbreak

The Press Democrat - 5/31/2024

May 31—More than a week after inmates began a hunger strike over conditions at the Sonoma County Jail, participants are now contending with a COVID-19 outbreak.

On May 22, 45 men started refusing meals in protest of high commissary costs, limited visitation and programming, and alleged unsafe COVID-19 practices, among other concerns.

By Wednesday, the strike was down to 25 people, according to jail officials, and even fewer Thursday although an exact count was not confirmed. "Medical and mental health staff are monitoring participants," Sonoma County Sheriff Office spokesperson Rob Dillion said.

"We're trying to sustain. It's pretty hard," one hunger strike participant said. Incarcerated people and their loved ones spoke to the Press Democrat on the condition that their names not be used out of fear of retaliation.

The strike followed the dismissal an official inmate grievance filed earlier this month that claimed staff were putting people incarcerated in the J module of the facility at risk of COVID-19 exposure. The Sheriff's Office said in a response letter that all protocols were being followed.

"We're tired of the administration believing that they can do what they want and put our health in danger," the hunger striker who spoke to the Press Democrat said. "We get nowhere with our grievance process, and nothing happens. We have no voice, and so we have to go to extreme measures."

He said that the jail is jeopardizing inmate health by housing transfers from other parts of the jail or other facilities in their unit without proper precautions and without adequately cleaning and sanitizing spaces. Beyond the health risk to those who might be more susceptible to severe infection when there is an outbreak, inmates are locked down and must forego time out of cells. Again and again, complaints are ignored, he said.

"The grievances are always looked into and evaluated," Dillion of the Sheriff's Office said. "Changes are much more complex than just a demand from incarcerated persons."

On Wednesday, J module became a quarantined unit after inmates tested positive for COVID-19, with only brief periods allowed out of cells. Dillion did not confirm the number of positive cases but said quarantine is triggered when there are three or more.

Two men in J module said the positive cases followed a transfer from C module where people had been sick. One said that a grievance was filed over the transfer. A woman with a loved one in the unit confirmed the same.

Daniel Scott, who was housed in C module said he was one of the men transferred to J module. He said he was feeling sick and tried to refuse the move and that another man in the unit had tested positive for COVID-19. Once in J module, he tested positive for COVID-19, a particular concern because of his asthma.

According to the Sheriff's Office's COVID-19 procedures, a COVID-positive case in a unit requires "restriction of movement to within the module."

If a COVID case were identified, policy would prevent inmates from being moved from that module.

Dillion said he could not immediately provide answers to questions about the transfer or about positive cases in C module.

"Transfers happen daily in the jail so at this point I can't say whether the positive COVID test is a result of a transfer," he said. "I don't have that information at this time." He said that COVID-19 protocols were and are being followed.

Even with the lockdown and infection, some planned to remain on hunger strike as of Friday.

This is at least the fourth hunger strike at Sonoma County's Main Adult Detention Facility since 2021 over conditions at the jail, including some of the same issues being protested now. Some changes, like free 10-minute calls during the pandemic lockdown and eventually the restoration of in-person visits followed hunger strikes. In March 2023, roughly 90 people went on strike to demand more visitation, cheaper commissary costs and more time out of cells. Due to understaffing at the jail, many were regularly being kept in their cells for 23 hours per day or more, against local and state policy.

"In Your Corner" is a column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or a hunch, you can reach "In Your Corner" Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com. On X (formerly Twitter) @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.

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