Hunger strike at Robert Presley Detention Center reaches end: Inmate supporters and sheriff’s department offer conflicting accounts

On Monday, May 1, a group of prisoners detained in downtown Riverside’s Robert Presley Detention Center concluded an 18-day hunger strike that began on Thursday, April 13. In an open letter released in March, the strikers — most of whom are housed in the jail’s administrative segregation unit, also known as “ad-seg” or solitary confinement — characterized the strike as a “peaceful protest” against what they see as unfair conditions, such as limited phone access and visiting privileges for inmates, insufficient time outside their cells, a lack of clean clothing and the county jail system’s current policies regarding solitary confinement.

According to Riverside County Assistant Sheriff Jerry Gutierrez — who oversees local jails in his capacity as head of the Sheriff Department’s Corrections Division — the number of prisoners participating fluctuated over the course of the strike. On April 13, 21 prisoners were reported to be refusing meals and by April 21 that number had increased to 26. A handful of women prisoners also joined the strike, Gutierrez said in a phone interview, but, “By the tenth (day), we didn’t have any female prisoners participating.”

By the time the strike was over, the amount of prisoners refusing food had dropped precipitously: “Toward the end, I think four inmates were still participating,” Gutierrez said.

This number could not be confirmed by Vonya Quarles, a lawyer and organizer who works with the Riverside chapter of All of Us or None, an organization that supports prisoners and formerly incarcerated people. Quarles was in close contact with the strikers and their families during the strike and has maintained communication with them since its conclusion. Among those strikers who refused food until the strike’s end date was Rigoberto Villanueva, the strike’s lead organizer, she said. (Gutierrez confirmed that Villanueva was still participating by the time the strike ended.)

Quarles cautioned against ascribing too much importance to how many strikers refused food for the entire 18 days, writing in an email that she does not “believe the number of strikers left at the end is as relevant as … the causes and conditions related to the hunger strike.”

Gutierrez, who has previously stated that the practices the strikers were protesting are meant to keep everyone in the jails safe, said that each inmate’s mental and physical health was closely monitored during the strike and that none of the prisoners had suffered any “serious health issues.” But Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS), another organization with which Quarles is affiliated, has reported that family members of strikers received word during the strike that four inmates had “passed out” and that three had at some point been transported to medical facilities outside the jail.

PHSS has also accused the Sheriff’s Department of “retaliating” against the strikers by cutting off their phone access and visiting privileges for two weeks, as well as refusing them access to the commissary (from which prisoners can buy provisions) and penalizing striking prisoners for rule violations.

Gutierrez attributes these accusations to a “misunderstanding” on the part of PHSS. “There was no retaliation at all with any of the participants,” he said. Phone and visiting privileges were not suspended for two weeks, he explained, though a malfunctioning elevator did prevent the jail from facilitating visits for one day during the strike. As for the commissary, Gutierrez said that, while a few of the striking prisoners had lost their commissary privileges as a result of disciplinary measures before the strike began, he reinstated those privileges “once I learned that some of them were participating in the hunger strike.” A spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department has also stated that some prisoners actually gained weight during their strike, and that this was likely due to some inmates’ consumption of commissary candy and other goods that they had stocked up on in anticipation of the strike.

But according to Quarles, Gutierrez’s telling is incongruous with Villanueva’s account of the strike. “Rigoberto (Villanueva) reported that his visits, recreation, and phone calls had been taken and he and the others (the other strikers) were being housed all together in a day room,” she wrote, referring to the area that prisoners in solitary confinement are let into for at least a half hour each day to shower, make phone calls and exercise. Quarles also said that Villanueva told her during a visit that he and a few other prisoners “received write-ups for exercising their right to peaceful protest.”

Villanueva’s description of the strikers’ health inspections also conflicts with some of Gutierrez’s other statements, according to an email from Quarles. Villanueva reported that he and the other strikers were “weighed every day and that they had been weighed with different scales, all of which were showing different weights,” Quarles wrote. “Each day the (strikers’) weight differences would be 10 to 15 lbs. He said they (the strikers) felt that they were not being taken seriously and that the different weights and scales supported that belief.”

Quarles also said that Villanueva reported to her that he had sustained a head injury on the eighth day of the strike, after a sheriff’s officer working in the jail refused to provide him a wheelchair when he requested assistance, forcing him to walk.

“On April 21 I went to visit him (at) about 5:30 or 6:00 (p.m.),” Quarles wrote, but she “was told by the desk officer that he (Villanueva) was getting medical treatment.”

That day, “(Villanueva) was supposed to go to court, and he needed a wheelchair,” Quarles said. Villanueva told Quarles that when he requested one from an officer — saying that he “felt weak and unable to make the walk” to the courtroom — “he was advised by the officer that it was Friday and he didn’t feel like doing (the) extra work of getting him a wheelchair,” she wrote in an email. A faint Villanueva “started walking, (and) he fell down,” injuring his head. When Quarles visited him later that day, she wrote, she “saw a knot on the front right area of his head, and he explained that it had come from being weak and dizzy from not eating.” Gutierrez could not be reached for comment on the matter at press time.

Neither the Presley Detention Center nor the Sheriff’s Department has issued a formal statement regarding the strikers’ demands, and the department has made no policy changes in response to them. But, Gutierrez said, the jail’s “classification staff” — members of which evaluate and determine prisoners’ holding status — were in constant communication with the prisoners involved in the strike. “We’re always talking to these individuals one-on-one, checking on their well-being,” he said. He added that the jail acts in full compliance with standards set by the California Board of State and Community Corrections, an agency responsible for prison regulation and inspection.

The UCR School of Public Policy’s Robert Presley Center for Crime and Justice Studies is not connected to the Robert Presley Detention Center, according to UCR Vice Chancellor of Strategic Communications James Grant and the center’s director, Professor of Psychology Steven Clark.

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