“Unlock the food,” one sign read. “Food is sacred,” read another, carried by one of the estimated 75 people who gathered outside of the Theo Lacy jail on April 3rd, 2022, demanding that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) reinstate hot meals in the OC jails.
In March 2020, incarcerated people organized to put pressure on OCSD to implement COVID safety measures inside of the OC jails. OC Sheriff Barnes rejected the concerns of incarcerated people, failing to take basic measures like providing adequate masks or making it possible for people to socially distance. Instead, Sheriff Barnes abruptly shut down the hot kitchens and suspended visitations for all incarcerated people. The OC jails began serving cold bologna sandwiches, with meat that was often spoiled and bread that was often moldy, for every lunch and dinner. This lasted two years.
Kitchens and visitations pose the least risk of COVID to the lives of folks behind bars, as meals are mostly provided through door slots amongst people who share the same living quarters and visitations take place behind glass. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which oversees the lives of over 90,000 people in their custody, and surrounding county jails kept their hot kitchens open throughout the pandemic. CDCR implemented video visitation early in the pandemic. Although OCSD began video court proceedings, they refused to allow people in their custody to receive video visitations. OCSD claimed that the closure of its hot kitchens and the suspension of visitations were done to protect incarcerated people from COVID while at the same time battling in court against having to implement COVID safety measures. Deputies working in the jails often expressed to incarcerated people that the closure of the hot kitchens and the suspension of visitations with the consequences for incarcerated people speaking out against the department.
Over the weekend of July 4, 2020, at least 300 people in the Theo Lacy jail and 120 in the Central Men’s jail went on a hunger strike protesting the lack of visitation and hot meals. In a report about the food conditions that came out in December of 2020, one person shared, “I have to choose between starving and getting sick.” Another testified, “They’ve been murdering us for two years. If I didn’t get commissary, I would have starved.”
In April 2021, the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) found that OCSD was not in compliance with the hot meal requirement of Title 15 standards, which regulate local detention centers. Instead of reinstating hot meals, OCSD began serving eight-ounce ladles of watery soup. The fact that this technical change, which did not stop the suffering of sickness of incarcerated people, satisfied Title 15 rules only reflects the inadequacy of these regulations. Even these minor changes were inconsistent.
Incarcerated people continued to work closely with community organizers, creating presentations and using artwork to illustrate the horrors going on inside the jails. The April 3rd, 2022 food justice rally was the culmination of two arduous and agonizing years where people behind bars put up a grueling fight in order to have hot meals, which were finally reinstated on the week of April 4th, 2022, one day after the rally and two days before the release of the BSCC’s April 6th, 2022 memo about their inspection.
Immediately after the reinstatement of hot meals, OCSD began to advertise a March 2022 BSCC inspection that found the jails in compliance with the Title 15 regulations that govern local jails, an inspection that got significant media attention even as the rally garnered none.
Although the March 2022 BSCC inspection at the OC jails was reportedly “unannounced,” incarcerated kitchen workers reported being warned nearly two weeks in advance. Jail staff reportedly spent hours replenishing the kitchen pantry and removing items from the refrigeration unit that appeared to be moldy or spoiled.
The BSCC reported that interviews conducted with incarcerated individuals also confirmed that OCSD had been serving adequate, store-quality meals all along. These types of interviews are conducted within earshot of deputies and incarcerated people know that there are great risks for anyone who decides to speak out. They also know that reporting abuse does not necessarily mean that the abuse will stop. Despite this, several hundred people found the courage to come forward publicly with their stories between 2020 and 2022. OCSD publicly dismissed these reports after a single inspection.
Poor food conditions inside of the OC jails are not novel. On November 16th, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted an inspection at the Theo Lacy Jail, where the OIG found substandard conditions “of deepest concern.”
“When inspecting the refrigeration unit, we observed slimy, foul-smelling lunch meat that appeared to be spoiled,” reads the OIG’s report. “This raises serious concerns.”
OCSD has spent the last two decades mired in scandal. Judges, oversight bodies, grand juries, and state agencies have reproached the department for a myriad of violations Sheriff Don Barnes does not seem to believe that the people in his jails are worthy of humane treatment. Privileging government bodies with just hours of curated exposure to the jails is not the right mechanism to ensure that basic human necessities such as hot meals and the provision of fresh food are protected from future abuse at the hands of disgruntled jail officials. Despite OCSD’s lack of accountability, the reopening of the hot kitchen is a victory for incarcerated organizers and their community allies. The community must continue to follow developments closely and hold OCSD accountable for permanent improvements to the food and conditions in the jails.
Jose Armendariz is a journalist with Empowerment Avenue and a writer whose work has appeared in the Voice of OC, JURIST, and Chispa and whose experiences have been written about in La Opinion, Cal Matters, and LAist. You can find his art and writing on Instagram @voiceofchangeoc
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