A Hunger Strike, a Deficit, and Santa Clara County’s Moment of Decarceration

Editor's Note:

Loved ones incarcerated in Santa Clara County Jails are on a hunger stirke to protest conditions inside and show solidarity for the movement outside to end systemic racism. Meanwhile the county must decide its budget priorities. If Santa Clara County takes this moment to decarcerate - that direction can follow the call of the hunger strikers and the Black Lives Matter proclamation, while also saving valuable resources during a fiscal crisis.

As I write this, those incarcerated in the Santa Clara County Jails are on a hunger strike. Already deprived of basic humane treatment, facing a lethal pandemic that thrives in precisely what jails are — warehouses that cage human beings in unsanitary congregated settings — they are intentionally enduring even more suffering. They do so in hopes their actions will lead to change. They of course strike in the great liberatory lineage of Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., and political prisoners historically and throughout the globe who have used the tactic as a transformational act to challenge white supremacy, oppression, and injustice. A hunger strike is an act of incredible visceral fortitude and honor - as a participant is rebelling against the survival instincts of one's own body for a greater moral cause. To hunger strike in the Santa Clara County Jail, in this moment, is a transcendent act of courage.

And despite the deplorable, life-threatening conditions inside those jails, they do so — remarkably — as an act of solidarity with those outside of the walls as well. Namely, they hunger strike to figuratively join the movement on the streets that have rallied and marched since the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and taken the Black Lives Matter call to the most sizable social movement in the history of the country. Unable to physically participate in the actions outside, the hunger strike is their language of protest. 

The #SCCJailStrike is happening at the same time the County is determining how to allocate its limited resources for the upcoming budget in the face of unprecedented cuts due to the pandemic. Even with proposed cuts, the County Executive’s Office is expecting a $200-500 million dollar deficit.

Budgets are expressions of what a community values, and what principles guide them. If we use the Black Lives Matter proclamation as a prism to evaluate budgetary decisions — then decarceration is both the vehicle of how we get through the deficit as well as how we simultaneously build a more equitable world, once we get to the other side.

And though elected officials may not be connecting the dots just yet — the most fiscally responsible path forward for the county is to support exactly what those incarcerated are starving themselves for — to divest public resources from the criminal punishment system. Specifically, our County can reduce the stranglehold of the institutions of incarceration — the Sheriff’s Office/Jails, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Probation Department — as these institutions (regardless if they are deemed progressive or not) are the vestiges of structural racism. The County Board of Supervisors recently supported a proclamation of Black Lives Matter — shrinking the criminal punishment system is the most honest way they can animate their commitment in a tangible and measurable policy direction.

In short, this deficit is Santa Clara County’s opportunity to decarcerate.

Community Alternatives to the Machine
The criminal punishment system both simultaneously overly occupies space in the overall county budget, while at the same time harming more people through its actual function or “service.” This means that at a critical time when the County should be reserving funds for housing, health services, employment, food security — the basic necessities for residents to literally survive through the pandemic — a lion’s share of those needed dollars are being consumed by a behemoth of a machine that is designed to cage and control Black and Brown communities. We can both free the people and free the resources by intentionally decarcerating. Both endeavors will save lives. For example, in the jails where we have seen more frequent COVID-19 outbreaks, the best way to ensure someone’s safety from getting contaminated in the jail is to not have them in the jail. And out in the community, having less expensive community-based responses instead of police to answer mental health calls could mean someone gets support rather than gunned down or the cost-intensive process of being arrested, adjudicated, and jailed.

And in fact the County has been depopulating the jails since the COVID-19 outbreak due to heath mandates. We now have a little over 2,000 people currently incarcerated, it was well over 3,000 just months ago, which is the lowest count in decades. And at the same time of letting people out, we are seeing a reduction in “crime” as reported by arresting agencies like the San Jose Police Department. Compared to 2019, violent crime decreased 22 percent and property crime went down 28 percent respectively. The conclusion being undeniable — decarceration does not create an increase in crime, and in fact may contribute to a decrease in crime as communities are more whole and

(Introductory video of families who authored the #ProtectYourPeople Budget)

At this point, reducing the budgets of the Sheriff’s Office which controls the jails, the District Attorney's Office which sends people to jail and prison, and Probation which controls peoples’ lives after being in custody is not a question of “if,” but rather a question of “by how much.” The County’s current budget targets would cut the Sheriffs Office by $65 million, the District Attorney’s Office by $25 million, and Probation by $15 million. Each agency is presumably going to be challenging those cuts, and finding ways for the cuts to essentially leave their operations unscathed - like cutting future vacant job positions.

Budgets are expressions of what a community values, and what principles guide them. If we use the Black Lives Matter proclamation as a prism to evaluate budgetary decisions — then decarceration is both the vehicle of how we get through the deficit as well as how we simultaneously build a more equitable world once we get to the other side.

Cuts That Can Be Felt
But the cuts need to be substantive, intentional, and targeted. Families of the incarcerated (some who are joining their loved ones by also going on a hunger strike) and families who lost loved ones to police have laid out such a plan in a guiding document called the #ProtectYourPeople Budget for Santa Clara County. How they arrived at their specific cut and reallocation models was by answering the question: “What aspect of the system caused you the most harm?” For some it was the District Attorney's Office imposing unjust and racist gang enhancements on their loved ones, sending them to prison for countless years, some left to die in prison. For others, it was the County’s reliance on law enforcement to respond to mental health crisis calls. And for those who made it through incarceration, it was the long tail of the system that prevented them from moving forward due to probation conditions. These same issues are what those on the inside are torturing their own bodies to bring to light.

For the Sheriff's Office for example, one of the most efficient ways to make a $65 million dollar budget cut is to think of that as expressed through the cost of incarceration. It costs roughly $240 dollars to house someone in main jail for a night, around $160 dollars in Elmwood. If we simply reduced and capped the number of people that this county incarcerates, the Sheriff’s office would be able to effectuate much of the budget shrinkage in a meaningful way.

For the District Attorney’s Office, which has a budget reduction target of $25 million, if they eliminated the Gang Unit, they would both radically reduce the costs associated with that prosecutorial strategy, as well as ending the blatant tactic to greatly expand the prison sentencing exposure of Black and Brown communities. The enhancement is used a hammer, to force plea deals, regardless if people felt they were innocent of the underlying charge or not. When a prosecutor claims the allegation was done for the benefit of a “gang,” it automatically increases the time by significant years and decades, and sometimes life in prison sentences. Plus, there is a knowing that being called a “gang member” to a conservative Santa Clara County jury pool is equivalent to calling someone a “terrorist.” The likelihood of getting a fair trial ends with the imposition of the enhancement. (And the standard of what constitutes a "gang" or a "gang member" is completely imaginary. We had a member who was called a "gang member" and faced life, because they found a red hat in his closet -- it was a baseball cap, since he coached his son's little league team.) This is why one of the explicit demands of the hunger strike is the elimination of the use of gang enhancements. The DA's office dipped a toe in that direction already though their Bend the Arc reform plans, which among other reforms, says they will not impose gang enhancements on most misdemeanors. While pointed in the right direction, they of course know the real damage is done at the felony level. 

Protect Your People and Our Resources
And as pointed out by the hunger strikers as well as the families who wrote the #ProtectYourPeople budget, the DA’s office makes decision every day that both locks residents in cages and costs us money. During COVID-19 outbreaks, defense attorneys are desperately calling for releases of their clients through bail reduction hearings. Prosecutors are then in a position to support or oppose these releases. Unfortunately, even for people who have tested COVID-19 positive, the DA’s office is vigorously opposing releases. And the expenses of incarceration continue to run up.

From a more systemic perspective, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office can also simply not invest resources to challenge statewide legislatively approved justice reforms. For example, the Santa Clara DAO in investing time and money to oppose SB1391, a law signed by the Governor last year that would prevent youth under the age of 16 to go into adult court. Their constitutional challenge to the law lost at the 6th District Appellate Court and is now headed to the California Supreme Court. Meanwhile, youth in Santa Clara who would have been eligible for the law.are sitting and waiting in juvenile hall, essentially collateral damage as the DA embarks on a legal battle all indications say they will loose.

Santa Clara County is in a moment where it can turn a deficit into decarceration — a transformative re-articulation of what is best for our communities. The brave leaders inside the Santa Clara Main Jail and Elmwood have put this reckoning squarely at the door for all of us. By honoring their sacrifice, we may create a County that affirmatively commits to Black Lives Matter and the justice the rallying call ensures.

(To follow and support the hunger strike that launched on August 14, 2020, follow #SCCJailStrike on social media.)

Families whose loved ones are on hunger strike share why they are joining in solidarity: