Hunger Strike in OC Jails Over Lack of Visitations and Hot Meals Comes to An End 

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Orange County Jail in Santa Ana.

The hunger strike that gripped jails in Orange County over the July 4 weekend has come to an end for now.

“By breakfast (Tuesday) morning all inmates had resumed eating,” Carrie Braun, Orange County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman, told the Voice of OC in a phone interview.

At least 300 people imprisoned at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange and 120 at the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana declared they were on a hunger strike on July 4 calling for hot meals to be served once again and for family visitations to be allowed at the jails.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the sheriff’s department temporarily suspended visits to people locked up in jail since March, making exceptions for attorneys as well as law enforcement. 

Hot meals were also suspended due to a lack of inmate work crews and to avoid congregation in dining halls as a precaution to limit the spread of the virus. 

Hot meals resumed two days prior to the hunger strike at the Theo Lacy Facility, according to an email Braun sent to the Voice of OC on Monday.

In the interview Wednesday, Braun said hot meals have not been reinstated at the Central Men’s jail. She added the department is working proactively to bring back both hot meals and visitations but did not have a specific timing on when that would happen.

Instead of hot meals people were given cold sack lunches that included bologna sandwiches.

“They should be able to eat a hot meal. Would you want to eat a bologna sandwich every day, three times a day?,” said Norvelle Bennett of Long Beach. “That’s just horrible.”

Bennett’s son is in the Central Jail pending robbery charges and participated in the hunger strike. She added the food that has been provided is poor quality.

Sarah Kahn is a member and volunteer with Transforming Justice OC, a community organization that works to end incarceration in Orange County, and has direct contact with incarcerated people. She said she has heard from multiple people in the jails about the strike who also expressed concern over the quality of the food.

“People were reporting that the cans the bologna comes in – it comes in big kinds of boxes – (that) say not for human consumption on them and that the meat in their sandwiches would be leaking and off color, and that the bread would be moldy and several people got very sick,” Kahn said.

Braun refused to address those reports regarding food quality.

“I’m not gonna go into individual complaints by inmates regarding the food,” Braun said.  “There’s also oversight by multiple different groups into all aspects of the jail.”

A report by the Office of the Inspector General after an unannounced inspection of the Theo Lacy Facility published in March 2017 expressed concern over the sheriff’s department’s handling of food. At the time the facility was housing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees as well.

“Detainees reported being repeatedly served lunch meat that smelled and tasted bad, which they rinsed with water before eating,” reads the report.

Kahn added that some among the incarcerated reported losing significant amounts of weight and not getting enough calories for the day, especially those who could not afford food from the commissary. 

Braun said incarcerated people are getting some commissary privileges for free to help lessen the impact of the coronavirus safety protocols in place.

“They’ve been getting an additional package of commissary free since, I believe, April,” Braun said. She added that in the package are a variety of food items as well as additional hygiene items. 

Bennett said her and her husband have been putting between $100-$240 on their son’s account since March to ensure he gets the sustenance he needs.

“We’ve been going up there weekly to put money on his books so that he can buy food to eat so he’s not starving, but it’s just sad. I’m (paying) out of my pocket to make sure he gets enough of what he needs, because they’re not giving it to him,” Bennett said.

Dolores Canales, the co-founder of California Families Against Solitary Confinement, said she has been in contact with several incarcerated people including her son and that they are ready to resume the strike if changes don’t occur.

“They are trying to work with administration to come up with some things and they saw the good faith effort with the hot meal. They’re hoping now for more communication,” Canales said in regards to the Theo Lacy Facility.

She said those in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons are not allowed to purchase commissary and said that during the coronavirus pandemic the jails and the sheriff’s department should allow those housed in administrative segregation to do so if they have the money.

Kahn started a GoFundMe page to put money on the accounts of incarcerated people so they can purchase commissary. The fundraiser is something Kahn has started on her own and independent of Transforming Justice OC. It has raised over $1,500 and Kahn said the money has helped over 40 people.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @[email protected] or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.