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Inmate Hunger Strike in OC Jail System Points to Much Deeper Problems, Say Critics

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

Reports that there is trouble in the Orange County jail system have been intensified by the newest inmate hunger strike that began on Wednesday, Oct 17.

This  is the second such strike at the OC jails this year, with both of the protests aiming to change conditions in the county’s five jail facilities, especially regarding what the strikers describe as an extreme overuse of solitary confinement.

The first strike, in which approximately 145 inmates participated for approximately three days, was in mid July. The organizers reportedly called it off, in order to reorganize for a second protest.

Undersheriff Don Barnes, who hopes to be elected Orange County Sheriff on November 6,  told reporters during the July hunger strike, that any allegation that the jails were mistreating inmates was “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,” Barnes said at a news conference. “That seems to be consistent with the ACLU’s actions.”

The OC Sheriff’s Department counted the newest group of strikers at 150.  But, Daisy Ramirez, the Orange County Jails Project Coordinator for the Southern California ACLU, put the number at over 1000 inmates on Friday, Oct. 19.

Over the weekend, some of the deputies working in the jails also gaged the number of strikers at 1000, or possibly more—a calculation that they based in part on how many meal trays came back untouched.

“We even heard that it may be closer to 1500,”  the ACLU’s Ramirez told WitnessLA.  “We talked to inmates who told us entire modules were refusing to go to chow.”

But, as in July, after day three of the strike,  the numbers began to drop said Ramirez because, according to inmates, deputies were telling them that their commissary—items inmates may order from the jail’s store-–would be confiscated, and that they would be moved to other housing locations to be medically monitored while they were on the strike.  As a consequence, according to Ramirez, strikers were fearful that they would be put into an isolation cell.

During the July hunger strike, she said, five of the inmate participants with whom the ACLU was in contact, were moved to cells that that, according to Ramirez, actually made medical monitoring more difficult. “These cells just have a solid door, and no emergency medical button on the inside,” she said. “This means they went from cells with glass doors, to smaller cells with solid doors, no windows, and no medical emergency button on the inside.  So they didn’t feel safe.”


“Tortuous” practices

According to a letter written by some of organizers (see below), the purpose of the current strike is to “peacefully protest extremely inhuman and tortuous practices by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department,” most specifically solitary confinement.

On Saturday, supporters of the strikers gathered to protest outside the Central Jail Complex in Santa Ana.

“Solitary confinement is torture,” said the ACLU of Southern California in a statement tweeted before the rally. “That’s why nearly 1,000 people at the Orange County Jail are going on their 2nd hunger strike of the year to protest the jail holding people in windowless cells 22 to 23 hours a day for months at a time.”

In addition, protestors said their loved ones are often deprived of visits and phone calls,  and retaliated against if they attempt to speak out about jail conditions.

Over the last decade it was often the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the LA County jail system that made headlines for one scandal after another.

In recent years, however, in addition to the department’s catastrophe-laden jailhouse snitch scandal, reports of a problematic culture inside the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, most particularly in its jails, have persistently surfaced.

In the past month, department member sources and recent OCSD retirees, have approached WitnessLA with descriptions of  troubling incidents, and what they characterize as an unwillingness among certain higher-ups to crack down on corruption and wrongdoing.

In 2013, an Orange County Grand Jury investigation found—and expressed in scathing terms—that some OC sheriff’s deputies working in the county’s five jails routinely ignored inmates’ needs by sleeping and watching television in some of the guard stations, and allowing selected groups of inmates to punish other inmates with beatings.

 Although, according to OC Sheriff’s department officials, the problems described by the 2013 Grand Jury  have long ago been corrected, jail sources told us of more recent incidents of similar misconduct toward inmates,  along with other forms of wrongdoing, that the rest of the department’s hardworking deputies often felt powerless to correct for fear of retaliation, or marginalization by superiors.

This June, one more Grand Jury investigation concluded that nearly half of the 34 deaths at the Orange County jail over the past three years could have been avoided if the sheriff’s department and medical staff paid more attention to health needs.In June 2017, the ACLU released a 104-page report alleging widespread corruption and abuse in the jail, which Sheriff Sandra Hutchins dismissed as a “purposely distorted view of the Orange County jails.”A few hours after the release of the 2017 ACLU report, Hutchins announced her intention not to run for another term,  thus clearing the way for her second in command and handpicked successor, Don Barnes, to announce his candidacy.

Running against Barnes is Duke Nguyen, a public integrity investigator for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, and an unknown quantity until he surprised department watchers by making it into the November runoff.

Here’s full letter, originally posted on Facebook, that outlines the hunger strikers’ thoughts and demands.

18 Comments

  • Wait a minute… a major jail informant scandal that effected numerous criminal cases a jail break with inside help recording lawyer / client phone calls and Barnes is blaming the ACLU?????? Why would anyone who has nothing to hide worry about outside monitoring ??? I think this is the tip of the ice burg . Who is Fon Barnes ??? A Mine Corona hold out

  • Sorry misplaced my glasses . I meant to say who is Don Barnes ??? Is he tied in with Mike Corona ??? Where is the board of supervisors ?? A 1,000 plus inmates on a hunger strike something is wrong here. I hope the Deputies realize they are not the punitive arm of the courts. The loss of the inmates freedom is the punishment, not continued abuse from Deputies

  • Barnes is the guy running the department! He has been in charge during all this stuff. Sandra stepped down years ago. He basically says that no problems exist and everything is perfect. Meanwhile in reality….

  • The hunger strike serves as a stark reminder that the conditions for inmates are still inhumane. They deserve justice for such harsh treatment. This is still under Barnes’ guidance and ultimately he is not doing his job. It is due to negligence and carelessness that this happened under Barnes. I wish I was in Orange County, otherwise I would vote for Duke Nguyen for OC Sheriff.

  • Great reporting on the OC Sheriff’s corruption that has been neglected by the press in OC for too long. No wonder Witness LA was recognized for an award this year for online investigative journalism.

    I hope you keep on digging and uncover some more truths behind the OC Sheriff union and their ties to Don Barnes.

  • I’m always wondering why Orange County Sheriffs Department seems to be untouchable.
    How can this agency and its leaders continue to escape scrutiny and act as if everything is okay and there should not be any outside investigations of wrong doing . I only want to find the truth, remove those who violate the law and put leaders in charge who believe in accountability that’s all. Why so much resistance to outside investigations ????
    Let’s return OCSD back into a respected professional organization

  • Celeste, hate this article, not because of the reporting of the alleged “hunger strike” but how you have framed of the situation. Having worked with the Los Angeles ACLU very closely in the past, I know common ground can be achieved, as the goal of enlightened jail management is shared. Seemingly the gotcha mentality drives the present day ACLU and appears as the established new standard of conduct. The ACLU is the Fox News of jail enlightenment, opportunistic & often opiniated bluster. As you well know county jails are reflection of a complex & imperfect justice system but receive a clearly disparate level of blame. Jails are very visible & subject to political jousting. The Orange County jail system has had issues as have all the other county jails, it’s not unique nor a problematic outlier. Jail escapes, every system has them, jail death tallies colored with after release numbers in the Grand Jury report misleading. Undersheriff Don Barnes running for the Sheriff of Orange County is in this article, framed by its negativity. Are you inpling that Barnes is unfit by his long OCSD tenure? Is his unnaned oppenent somehow more worthy, less flawed? I have seen you be much better than this & feel more than a little unfairness in this offering.

  • When I came home from work today, someone put a sign in front of my house. I was told that this person is endorsed by the union, I did not appreciate the unauthorized use of my property for the oc union’s agenda. It’s a sign of desperation.

  • I work within OCSD, Barnes has been running the sheriff’s department for the past 3 years, good deputies have been trying to do what is right and report the abuses we see inside the jails and are retaliated against by the deputies and management. Abuse- physical, mental and verbal happens to inmates and has continued to happen even after the grand jury and ACLU reports.

  • Years ago, I worked with an individual who was an expert in prisons across the country. I remember vividly what he said to me regarding inmate violence. Once inmates begin to rebel by making complaints, striking against working and refusing to eat, that prison has some very serious underlying problems that are not being addressed by the administration. OC Sheriff needs to address the grievances by evaluating the complaints because once inmates turn violent, people will be seriously injured or killed.

  • Interesting comments here. I would like to know .. who is running this department??
    If Barnes is the defacto Sheriff now why doesn’t anyone question his ability to be the elected Sheriff??? Where is his money coming from????? Is Dave Harrington still involved in the race ?? I really liked him and sure wish him success

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