Seventeen inmates have canceled their plans to hunger strike in protest of “outrageous” phone and commissary prices at the Calaveras County Jail after the facility’s administration promised negotiations with their private vendors.
“Everything is being resolved peacefully without having to starve ourselves or go to extremes,” inmate Marc Holocker told the Enterprise on Tuesday. “I am glad that this is happening.”
According to Holocker, a response to the inmates’ filed grievance was received via mail on Sept. 26, the same day the group intended to begin their hunger strike. Holocker said the inmates did not find the administration’s response satisfactory and submitted a follow up, and a second response was received verbally on Tuesday, promising efforts to lower prices at the jail through negotiations with the facility’s private vendors.
Calaveras County Jail Bureau Commander Capt. Chris Hewitt told the Enterprise on Wednesday that subsequent research regarding the inmates’ grievances revealed that commissary items were more expensive at the Calaveras County Jail than in Tuolumne County, though both counties are contracted with Swanson Services Corporation.
Swanson has agreed to meet with the jail at an undetermined date, Hewitt said, and separate negotiations are currently in progress with the facility’s phone service vendor.
“We are working with them to see what we can do on that part,” he said.
Hewitt emphasized that the county and sheriff’s office do not receive any revenues from canteen sales and phone calls, as profits beyond what the vendor receives are placed into an inmate welfare fund.
Following the hunger strike ultimatum reported last week, the events at the Calaveras County Jail have caught the attention of civil rights advocates who are addressing similar issues at the state and national levels.
Danica Rodarmel, a San Francisco-based attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said she has been working alongside other advocacy groups to lower the cost of phone calls and commissary prices in county jails and juvenile facilities through statewide legislation.
Senate Bill 555 has garnered bipartisan support and will hopefully be passed in the upcoming legislative year, Rodarmel said.
Some jurisdictions have already elected to reduce or remove prices altogether, she said, with the San Francisco jail system scheduled to phase out phone fees entirely by next year.
Rodarmel said surveys performed by her and her colleagues have revealed that high phone prices burden the families of those incarcerated and exacerbate mental illness and feelings of isolation in inmates.
Additionally, she said, many inmates reported feeling hungry and needing to purchase commissary food items in order to sleep at night.
“The way the system currently operates is shortsighted and cruel,” said Rodarmel, who added that there are loopholes in California Penal Code that allow for the allocation of inmate welfare funds outside of their intended use. “I think this is pretty basic stuff. It is disappointing and kind of disheartening that we even have to have this conversation … Unfortunately, the constitutional floor for rights of incarcerated people is pretty low. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that incarcerated people are human beings.”
Rodarmel said that although scenarios similar to that in Calaveras County are unusual, there may be other inmate protests that go unreported. She and her colleagues hope to bolster those inmates by providing relevant information to their cause.
“The reality is, most (incarcerated people) across the U.S. will be released at some point,” Rodarmel said. “We want them to have access (to family) and live with dignity and be well, because we want them to come home well.”