DUBLIN, Calif. - About two dozen incarcerated people at Santa Rita Jail say they are on a hunger strike over what they describe an inedible food – sometimes found with rodent droppings inside – as well as rising commissary food prices, which they say is becoming more difficult to afford.
Two of the men who said they are only drinking water and Gatorade to grab attention for their plight spoke to KTVU this week about why they are upset that snacks such as ramen now costs $1.39 when the same item costs 25 cents at Walmart or 50 cents at the jail in San Francisco.
"The commissary prices are too high," James Mallett said during a video call from the jail.
He said the more expensive prices are a burden on his family, as well as all the families who put money on inmate accounts so that they can buy extra food items such as tuna, coffee, beans and soup.
He also thinks it's not fair that as per a 2018 contract, Trinity Services Inc., agreed to deposit 40% of the commission from all purchases to the Alameda County Sheriff's Office. The contract also guarantees that the Sheriff's Office is guaranteed $500,000 a year in sales. That contract was extended to 2023.
To compare, the San Francisco Sheriff's Office does not make any profit off commissary sales. And a review of the San Francisco jail's commissary prices shows that food prices have actually dropped from 2019 to 2021.
Mallett said that eating commissary food has become even more important because the food at Santa Rita "isn't edible." He said fresh food is overcooked so that there is no taste and basically, he's served boiled beans every day.
He decided to go on a hunger strike with about 24 others because it is a way to peacefully protest something he wants the public to know about.
"We don't have any other way," he said. "Because filing grievances don't work."
Eric Rivera, who is also incarcerated at Santa Rita, echoed Mallett's complaints.
"The food that we're being served, it's already horrible," Rivera said by phone. "There is no seasoning. And before there's been times when we find droppings in our food, meaning rat feces.
Rivera has only drunk Gatorade each day since Jan. 7 and is going to "go as hard as I can" in terms of not eating to prove his point.
"I don't know how long everybody can hold up, but everybody's trying to do the best they can," he said.
In response, Alameda County Sheriff's Lt. Ray Kelly denied that anyone is not eating in protest over the food.
"There is no hunger strike at the jail," he said on Tuesday.
Kelly said that he was told that there was an approximate 5% rate increase at the commissary due to inflation and costs and that this was the first price increase in three years.
Kelly did not provide a price list of commissary foods.
However, some of those prices were relayed to KTVU by those incarcerated in Santa Rita. For example, a bag of potato chips was raised from $1.39 to $1.69; coffee was raised from $4 to $6.75; a package of ramen noodles was raised from $1.13 to $1.39; lotion was raised from $3 to $4.50 and chili beans was raised from $4 to $5. These price increases range from 21% to 68%.
By contrast, at the San Francisco Jail, potato chips are 46 cents, ramen is 50 cents and chili beans are about $1.50 – according to a full list of snacks provided by the San Francisco Sheriff's Office.
San Francisco Sheriff spokesman Christian Kropff said that jail commissary prices have actually dropped because in 2019, retired Sheriff Vicki Hennessey and Mayor London Breed announced their intention to ban paid phone calls and commissary markups in the jails, making the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office the first in the nation to do so.
That decision came after an analysis from the San Francisco Financial Justice Project, which had advocated against having the jail from making a profit on people buying hygiene supplies and snacks while incarcerated. San Francisco contracts with a company called SecurePak for commissary sales.
The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office and the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office did not respond to questions over their commissary prices or contracts with their jails.
The subject of Santa Rita's quality of food has formally been brought up in federal court.
On behalf of lead plaintiff Daniel Gonzalez, Oakland attorney Yolanda Huang sued the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in November 2019 claiming a spate of constitutional violations, including that inmates are given unsafe food and inadequate medical care, kept in unsanitary conditions, charged exorbitant fees for phone calls and have been retaliated against for complaints of mistreatment.
In November 2020, U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley dismissed the bulk of claims but she refused to dismiss claims regarding contaminated food, inadequate sanitation and one inmate’s claim of retaliation for filing a grievance, Courthouse News reported.
And in March 2021, Corley refused to impose stricter health and safety requirements on a county jail’s industrial kitchen.
"The County offers evidence that it has taken numerous steps to ensure that the kitchen remains free of vermin and outside animals," Corley wrote in a ruling denying the request for a preliminary injunction.
Still, the push for better food quality persists.
Rivera, Mallett and others who are protesting say they want the sheriff to stop profiting from commissary sales and that the Board of Supervisors should set the prices through a public process – not to allow the sheriff the power to set the prices alone. They also say they want better, edible and more fresh fruits and vegetables.
"I just hope the Board of Supervisors, or if there's a court out there, or somebody is just listening," Rivera said. "And they give us horrible food for we're forced to buy that. I know we are in jail, but I'm sure we still deserve some rights. We should have some sense of human dignity. I just hope somebody listens."