Inmates at Sonoma County Jail stage hunger strike to demand in-person visits

Wednesday’s hunger strike was at least the second at the facility this year involving requests for greater access to the outside world during the coronavirus pandemic.|

Nearly 100 inmates at the Sonoma County Jail began a hunger strike this week in an attempt to pressure jail administrators into reinstating in-person visits with family and friends more than a year after the coronavirus pandemic prompted jail staff to cut off such contact.

The strike, which began Wednesday, involves 92 people at the all-male general population housing module, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Misti Wood said.

The primary purpose for the strike is to allow in-person visits at the facility, though other requests related to broader access to work assignments and electronic tablets, which can be used for entertainment, were also brought up, Wood said.

Inmates told staff they intended to strike for four days, Wood said.

The facility is waiting for permission and guidance from county and state public health officials before they can restart visits. Preventing the virus from infiltrating the jail is among staff’s biggest concerns, Wood said.

So far, the jail has inoculated about 100 inmates against the coronavirus, including 50 about three weeks ago, Wood said. There’s no update on when the facility will receive more doses, which are in high demand countywide, Wood said.

The Sonoma County Jail, which continues to hold a fraction of the 1,100 daily inmates it housed on average prior to the pandemic, reported no new coronavirus cases for a seven-day period starting March 14, according to the most recent data provided by the Board of State and Community Corrections.

However, it had reported between 1 and 11 confirmed cases among inmates on four consecutive weeks prior to that, the data shows.

“We’re working on a plan to reopen visitation so that once we get the green light and the guidance, we will be able to reopen in-person visitation as quickly and safely as possible,” Wood said. “But unfortunately we are not there yet.”

Wood could not provide a timeline for when the jail planned to restart the visits. State and county health officials did not provide that information when asked Thursday afternoon.

Wednesday’s hunger strike was at least the second at the facility this year, though it comes as Sonoma County has emerged from the most restrictive tier in California’s coronavirus reopening plan.

The earlier strike, which began Jan. 1, involved more than 20 inmates who refused to eat meals cooked at the jail until their requests for free phone calls, video visitations and access to more voluntary work assignments were met.

Those inmates still had access to food sold at the jail’s commissary, and deputies said they believed inmates who were part of that strike stockpiled food ahead of the demonstration.

It was not clear whether inmates prepared for the current hunger strike in a similar fashion, Wood said.

As a result of the January strike, Karlene Navarro, the director of the county’s independent law enforcement watchdog office, met with jail staff to discuss options that would allow inmates to have greater communication with the outside world, Navarro said.

That led to jail staff providing inmates with 10 minutes of free phone calls daily, in addition to any paid calls an inmate made, starting Feb. 10, Navarro said.

While her office has not heard from inmates about the current demonstration, she has been in contact with jail management about the strike, Navarro said in an email.

Discussions about what safety protocols could look like when the jail decides to reopen visitations include the possibility of requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, though no strategy has been finalized, she said.

”I will continue to keep in touch with jail management to monitor the situation to encourage an expeditious, but safe approach to re-implementing in-person visits,“ Navarro said.

Santa Rosa resident Haley Hansel-Kestler said her boyfriend has been incarcerated at the Sonoma County Jail for the past month, though he spent 130 days at the facility last summer.

That period was a difficult time in their relationship, she said.

“All I was able to do was talk to him over the phone and write him,” Hansel-Kestler said. “It’s frustrating not being able to see him.”

In accordance with the jail’s policies, medical staff examined every person participating in the hunger strike on Wednesday and will do so again on Friday to monitor their conditions, Wood said. Jail supervisors will also check in with inmates to see if they can come to an agreement, she added.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which runs the state’s prison system, on Tuesday announced the impending return of in-person visitations beginning April 10.

Those visits will be limited to one hour on weekends, allow only one visitor per inmate and include temperature and COVID symptom screenings, among other protocols, the CDCR said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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