The dogs dashed down the concrete cellblock — tongues wagging, teeth bared — as they dragged their armed handlers behind them.
“You’re going to get fucking shot!” one of the officers shouted to the inmates, his words clearly discernible to Victoria Castillo as she listened through the phone.
Her husband, Richard, aka Noodles, is one of those inmates.
“They’re lining up,” he told her, before the call abruptly dropped. They were being put on lockdown.
Noodles has spent nearly four years awaiting trial on drug possession and assault charges at the main county jail in Merced, a poor but sunny central California city known as the “gateway” to Yosemite National Park.
Of course, Castillo worries about him all the time, but the day of that phone call was different: The residents of Cellblocks 1, 3, and 4 had just announced that they would be going on a hunger strike to demand improvements to their living conditions at the overcrowded jail. Inmates at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility, another county-run detention center across town, would be joining them.
The protest, which began on Sept. 9 — on the 45th anniversary of the infamous uprising at New York’s Attica prison — is now in its fourth week, and jail officials have confirmed that at least 100 inmates are participating. And that’s only in Merced.
Tens of thousands of prisoners from Arizona to Florida are orchestrating a nationwide work stoppage and hunger strike. Riots have erupted in some places, like at Perry Correctional Institution in South Carolina, and at Holman prison in Alabama, where, on Sept. 24, prison guards also reportedly went on strike and the warden was seen pushing the prisoners’ meal cart.
But of all the locales involved in the nationwide strike, Merced is special: It is home to the only two jails confirmed to be involved.*
Over the last five years, conditions in California’s county jails have gotten much worse, thanks to state reforms that were originally meant to alleviate overcrowding.
One of those reforms, the Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011, was passed after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Gov. Jerry Brown to shrink the prison population, which had swelled after years of tough-on-crime legislation.
Realignment, as it is called, shifted responsibility for certain types of offenders — particularly those offenders convicted of non-serious, nonviolent, non-sex-related crimes — to local county facilities. But now, some local jails are becoming crowded, too.
In Merced County, for example, the corrections system is approved to house a maximum of 753 inmates, but — according to an assessment prepared last year for the county’s Department of Public Works — the average daily inmate population from 2012 to 2014 ranged from roughly 850 to more than 1,100.
“It is a strain on a system that was not designed to house inmates for more than one year,” Merced Sheriff’s Department Capt. Greg Sullivan tells SF Weekly.
John Latorraca, one of the jails that Sullivan helps to oversee, “was basically built for weekenders,” he explains. Now, it houses people serving terms of up to 17 years.
Some jail inmates even suggest that they might prefer to serve their sentences in a state prison, simply because there would be more activities and resources available.
“County jails are essentially a black hole for communication, medical care, and treatment,” says Crystallee Crain, the director of the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership. “They are heavily overcrowded, and on top of that, the programs just don’t exist.”
In Merced, the inmates’ list of demands include a few things that they would probably find in a prison, like exercise equipment and a law library. But they are also demanding higher-calorie food, better medical care, religious services, substance abuse counseling, and the firing of an officer that they say has been abusive.
For his part, Sullivan has been in talks with the strikers and, he says, some have agreed to start eating again as a show of good faith in the negotiation process.
“We try to resolve the issues,” he says. “We want to be a safe, efficient facility.”
Last month, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation issued a report boasting that Realignment had been at least partly responsible for a drop in the number of offenders who eventually went back to prison over the course of three years. The overall three-year return-to-prison rate is now 44.6 percent, according to the report. (By contrast, San Francisco County’s three-year return-to-prison rate is 53 percent.)
“This is the first time that more people stepped out of prison than went back,” Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the department, brags.
What may be surprising, however, is that California tracks “recidivism” by counting only the offenders who are released and then later return to state prison. If the inmates are released but then end up in county jail, the state of California does not consider them to be recidivists.
“We are only looking at people who come back to prison,” Thornton admits. “We have never tracked people who went back to jail, and we don’t have the ability to track all those people.”
Thus, as state officials continue to tout the falling rate of recidivism, jails continue to fill in Merced and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Victoria Castillo has just finished her own 12-day hunger strike in solidarity with the county inmates. Her daughter, now 4, was only an infant when Noodles was arrested, and her son, now 13, is a becoming a young man while his father remains in lockup. Noodles’ bond, set at $650,000, is a monstrous sum that Castillo cannot hope to ever pay.
For now, she and her children wait anxiously each day for their next phone call from the inside.
“Every day that my husband is in there,” Castillo says, “I’m afraid that he’s going to get killed.”
*Organizers and news reports say strike activity has occurred at two California prisons, Taft Correctional Institution and Central California Women’s Facility, though the state corrections department says otherwise. In addition, a statement by inmates at Santa Clara County Jail announced that a two-week hunger strike is scheduled to begin there on Oct. 17.