Roughly 150 to 200 Orange County jail inmates are on a hunger strike to protest jailhouse conditions, according to two different estimates — one from the OC Sheriff’s Department and another from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“People behind bars organized the strike because they are tired of the abuse and affront to their civil liberties and civil rights,” said Daisy Ramirez, the ACLU’s Orange County Jail Projects coordinator in a Thursday telephone interview.
She said the hunger strike and a rally by about 35 people outside the central jail in Santa Ana were intended to draw attention to issues including “prolonged isolation, lack of access to medical care, excessive use of force, retaliation for trying to file grievances” and “lack of access to grievance forms.”
“We helped organize the rally in support of the hunger strikers’ demands,” Ramirez said. “We want to amplify the voices of people behind bars so that the community can pay closer attention to their plight.”
But Undersheriff Don Barnes told a news conference the claims made by the inmates and ACLU are “not valid.
“It is not uncommon for the ACLU to make broad-based allegations in their attempt to get access inside custodial facilities that they will use for further manipulation. That seems to be consistent with the ACLU’s actions,” Barnes said.
Ramirez said she spoke with five of the inmates at the central jail intake release center on Wednesday, and they said they began the strike at breakfast Wednesday.
Sheriff’s Department Public Information Officer Carrie Braun said meal times at the central jails are approximately 5 a.m. for breakfast, 11 a.m. for lunch and 4 p.m. for dinner.
Ramirez said this is the first time she’s seen inmates come together inside the jail to protest alleged mistreatment and jail conditions that the ACLU has been investigating for over a year. The ACLU detailed some of the inmates’ complaints in a June 2017 report.
The 108-page report details alleged abuses including deputy violence against inmates, instances of deputies instigating fights between inmates and prisoners’ fears of retaliation when they attempt to report the alleged abuses. The complaints came from more than 120 former or current inmates.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens responded to the report one day after it was released, calling it “inaccurate or purposely distorted.”
The ACLU asked to meet with Hutchens after they released the report, Ramirez said, but the department has “denied issues exist in the jails.” The department also has not met with the ACLU since the hunger strike started.
The central jail — which consists of the Intake Release Center and the men’s and women’s jails — currently houses a total of 6,468 inmates, according to numbers provided by the county.
Of the total, 934 are at the Intake Release Center, 1,138 are at the men’s jail and 334 are at the women’s jail.
Ramirez said inmates told her 200 were participating in the hunger strike but Braun said the total was 150. Ramirez said she hasn’t heard of any participants at the nearby Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, which houses 3,153 inmates, or the James A. Musick Facility in Irvine, which houses 909.
She said it is unknown how long the hunger strikes will last, but heard that some of the inmates have committed to “taking it as long as it needs to go.”
She also said she was told by inmates that Sheriff’s Deputies threatened those on strike with confinement.
Barnes disputed the claim and said in some cases, inmates who refuse meals will be put in isolation for medical observation.
“Not because of disciplinary purposes,” Barnes said.
Of the five inmates she spoke with, Ramirez said four were Latino and one was white. Their ages range from 29 to 50.
Ramirez said two of the inmates are Josh Waring, 29, and Johnny Martinez, 42, who organized the hunger strike. Both were held together in Module J of the complex as of Wednesday.
Ramirez refused to name the other three out of concern for their safety.
Waring is on trial for attempted murder and is the son of former “Real Housewives of Orange County” star Lauri Peterson, according to the Orange County Register.
Shelby Slezak, Waring’s girlfriend, said he was sent Wednesday to be “mentally evaluated” after refusing three meals where they “determined he was perfectly fine.” His last meal was Tuesday evening, she said.
Waring was then moved to Module M of the complex, according to Slezak. She said this move is “obviously retaliation” to the hunger strike in an effort to separate Martinez and Waring, who helped initiate the strike.
Slezak said Waring has been denied clean clothes, taunted by officers, sent to solitary confinement for “way more time than he should have [been],” and has had phone conversations cut short.
Waring also claimed his phone calls were improperly monitored while discussing legal strategies and awaiting trial. Slezak said the calls were recorded and the information was shared with prosecutors, infringing on his right to a “fair and speedy trial.”
“He [Waring] is genuinely in fear of his life everyday,” she said.
Barnes said Martinez was convicted in a 1994 fatal stabbing case. The stabbing was gang-related and happened in Placentia, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Martinez was sent to maximum security Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, where he was also involved in a hunger strike there, according to KPCC. During that protest, hundreds of inmates refused food provided by the state for days in order to protest grievances similar to those of the inmates in Santa Ana.
During the Pelican Bay protests, California state prison officials obtained a federal court order from U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson to allow force-feeding and other steps to keep prison hunger strikers alive, even if they declared they do not want such medical intervention, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Braun said in a text message Thursday the Sheriff’s Department considers it a hunger strike after an inmate has refused meals for 72 hours and at that point “will more closely monitor the medical condition of each inmate” and they will be “closely observed for any medical issues that would require treatment.”
However, they do not “force feed” or medicate inmates without an order from a judge, she said.
Barnes said Martinez is back in Orange County facing charges for attempted murder in connection with the 1994 stabbing case.
In a Thursday statement, the Sheriff’s Department said the hunger strike is an attempt to “manipulate known gang member and convicted murderer Johnny Martinez’s housing location, a move that could grant him greater access to other inmates and further his attempt to advance control within the Orange County Jail.”
The statement continued, “The fact that the ACLU would knowingly support a hunger strike led by such a dangerous individual is extremely troubling.”
Martinez’s mother, Dolores Canales, was one of the speakers at the ACLU-organized rally outside the central jail on Thursday. She also is the co-founder of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, and was part of the outside protests in Pelican Bay.
Roughly 35 people gathered in front of the intake release center to join Canales in the demonstration and demand reforms within the Sheriff’s Department.
“I would ask for independent oversight review, not oversight from their own department,” said Canales. “I would ask for external oversight, I would ask for an investigation. I would ask for Sandra Hutchens to be accountable for the deputies’ and sheriffs’ behaviors.”
Protesters then marched the perimeter of the intake release center with banners, megaphones and signs, some reading “stop caging us,” “overflow equals isolation” and “hold OC deputies accountable.”
Canales said she has made attempts to see her son since March 7 but her requests have been denied each time. She said she was told by someone with the jail that she will never be allowed to see her son while he is in the facility.
“(Canales) is not going to get meetings with her son because of her past actions. I’ll leave it at that,” Barnes said to reporters.
Ramirez said the reason the ACLU has not filed a lawsuit is because it’s still investigating. ACLU investigators have been collecting information from inmates for over a year.
“That’s actually a question that we get from people that are incarcerated,” she said. “We’re going to determine whether we think advocacy would suffice to bring about the necessary changes, or if litigation is necessary.”
The inmate hunger strikes come as Barnes is running for Sheriff. Barnes won 49 percent of the vote in the June 5 primary and faces Duke Nguyen, a public integrity investigator for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, in the Nov. 6 runoff.
The Sheriff’s Department currently is embroiled in controversy for its use of jailhouse informants, which resulted in reduced or thrown out charges in at least seven criminal cases, including one where a gang member facing two murder charges walked free.
The controversy sparked an investigation by the state Attorney General, which opened a criminal probe in March 2015.
This year, when Attorney General Xavier Becerra was asked May 2 by Voice of OC whether his office will file charges against the three deputies, Becerra declined to comment on any aspect of the ongoing investigation, citing a law enforcement rule not to talk about investigations until official actions are filed.
Ramirez said, without going into specifics, she had heard from some inmates that they’re being housed in locations that “pose a threat to their lives.” Ramirez did not know if the inmates she spoke with were in jail on nonviolent charges.
In 2017, Danny Pham, a man jailed on non-violent charges, was killed by his cellmate, Marvin Magallanes, who about two months earlier had confessed to killing a homeless man. Pham was due to finish a six-month sentence for auto theft the same month he was killed.
Ramirez said inmates have told her the alleged jailhouse conditions frequently remind them of Pham’s death.
She said one prisoner told her, “‘Some of us have made mistakes and will have to do time for that; however, we shouldn’t have to fear ‘am i going to die today?’”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Shelby Slezak’s last name as Slazak. Voice of OC regrets the error.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
Kassidy Dillon is a Voice of OC intern. She can be reached at email@example.com.