Two dozen protesters, including the mother of a convicted murderer and American Civil Liberties Union officials, rallied around the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana Thursday to criticize custody conditions, which has sparked an inmate hunger strike.
About 150 male inmates have gone on a hunger strike, which started Tuesday.
Daisy Ramirez of the ACLU’s Orange County Jails Project characterized the jails as in “very dire conditions right now.”
Sheriff’s officials are also denying visits with many inmates, Ramirez said.
There’s also an issue called “overflow” in which conditions get so crowded that some inmates are being left “in the hole because there’s nowhere else safe to put them,” Ramirez alleged.
Some inmates who speak up are being subjected to discipline, Ramirez said.
One of the leading protesters was Dolores Canales, co-founder of California Families Against Solitary Confinement and mother of convicted murderer Johnny Martinez.
Martinez is vying for the head of the Mexican Mafia’s Orange County organization and is considered one of the top candidates for the job, according to a few law enforcement authorities who have worked on Mexican Mafia cases.
There is a void in the leadership post since longtime Mexican Mafia boss Peter Ojeda died June 7 at the age of 76 while serving a prison sentence for continuing to run the gang out of jail.
Martinez was convicted of murder in a 1994 Orange County case, and was indicted this year on charges of a Mexican Mafia-connected murder of a Placentia man Jan. 19, 2017. He also is charged in connection with an attempted murder in Placentia in August of last year.
Martinez is accused with five other defendants of conspiring to kill 35-year-old Robert Rios. According to the indictment, Martinez was accused of using a smuggled-in cellphone while doing time in the Salinas Valley State Prison in Monterey County to coordinate the killing.
Dorsey Nunn, the executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, said he joined the protest when he heard that Canales was not being allowed to see Martinez.
“I can remember being in solitary confinement in 1972,” Nunn said, adding that when he was released from prison in 1981 he made it his life’s work to “resist the oppression of the state.”
“We’ve been fighting this issue of solitary confinement for a long time,” Nunn said. “If Dolores can’t get a visit who will be next?”
The sheriff’s department issued a statement claiming that hunger strikes are “uncommon, but are nothing new.”
The sheriff’s statement claims that hunger strikes are often ploys to “manipulate jail procedures, participate in jail politics or for other nefarious purposes. We believe the purpose of the planned inmate hunger strike is an attempt to manipulate known gang member and convicted murderer Johnny Martinez’s housing location, a move that could grant him greater access to other inmates and to further his attempt to advance control within the Orange County Jail.”
The sheriff’s department criticized the ACLU for joining forces with the protest.
“The fact that the ACLU would knowingly support a hunger strike led by such a dangerous individual is extremely troubling,” the statement read.
Sheriff’s officials disputed claims that conditions in the jails are poor.
“Claims of inhumane treatment at Orange County jails are patently inaccurate,” the statement read.