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Sonoma County Jail inmates call for more contact with outside world

More than 20 inmates at the Sonoma County Jail have refused to eat facility-cooked meals for nearly two weeks as part of their demands to correctional officials for greater communication with the outside world as well as more access to work assignments.

The strike began Jan. 1 and involves 21 inmates in a single module at the Sonoma County Jail, where general population inmates are held, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia said.

Those inmates have told correctional staff that they will refuse to eat meals provided by the jail until their demands for free phone calls, video visitations and increased access to voluntary work assignments, which gives them more time out of their cells, are met, Valencia said.

Inmates still have access to food sold through the jail’s commissary and correctional deputies believe inmates who are part of the strike stockpiled food ahead of the protest, he added.

The inmates’ demands come as the jail nears its 10th month without in-person visits by families and friends because of the coronavirus pandemic, though inmates have been able to contact relatives via prepaid phone calls.

“Some of the stuff is out of our reach,” Valencia said of the demands. “The phones inside the facility are owned by a third-party vendor so that’s not something we can give away for free. The video visitation, that’s an infrastructure project, which we don’t have the money for.”

Each of the 21 inmates participating in the protest undergoes daily medical checks and none has experienced serious health issues as a result of the coordinated action, Valencia said.

On Tuesday, all inmates received a phone card with about 90 minutes worth of time on them, as was done before the Thanksgiving holiday, Valencia said.

At least three inmates participating in the strike bought large quantities of food from the jail’s commissary a day before the strike began, Valencia added.

Valencia could not immediately provide information Wednesday about how many other inmates did the same, though he did note commissary sales increased at the housing module where the strike was underway before the start of year.

The inmates’ rejection of their meals means jail staff still classify the protest as a hunger strike, even if they may be eating food stored in their cells, Valencia said.

Rules around which and how many inmates can be given work assignments come in conflict with inmates’ third demand, Valencia said.

Each module can have no more than four inmates who are given work assignments and the housing unit where the strike is taking place already has four, he said.

Inmates chosen for unpaid assignments, which include janitorial, kitchen and laundry work, must be nonviolent offenders without any disciplinary issues, Valencia added.

Those workers get additional time outside of their cells on top of the 2½ hours each inmate is allotted daily, he said.

“ (Inmates) do get out of their cells as required by law,” Valencia said. “I just think it’s hard right now for everybody that’s incarcerated because they are not able to get visitation.”

Karlene Navarro, Sonoma County's independent law enforcement auditor, said in an email that her office received an anonymous call last week about a potential hunger strike, though the caller declined to file a complaint.

Navarro said she was told by the Sheriff’s Office that some inmates were refusing to eat meals served by the jail, though those individuals were eating food from the commissary instead.

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

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