Robert Presley Detention Center. Photo via obertpresleydetentioncenter.org
Robert Presley Detention Center. Photo via obertpresleydetentioncenter.org

More than two dozen inmates at the Robert Presley Jail in downtown Riverside are beginning their second week of a hunger strike to protest conditions that a Riverside County sheriff’s spokesman said Friday are based on “safety and security.”

Twenty-six inmates have been refusing meals since April 13, but not all of them are avoiding food altogether, according to Assistant Sheriff Jerry Gutierrez, who supervises correctional facilities countywide.

“A few of the inmates have started gaining weight,” Gutierrez told City News Service. “The assumption is they’d lose it, but they’ve actually gained a little bit.”

Rigoberto Villanueva, 40, organized the strike to shine a light on what he has described — by way of his wife, Nancy Markham — as inequitable policies that make life unnecessarily onerous for detainees, especially those housed in the jail’s administrative segregation, or AD-SEG, unit.

Villanueva has been in segregation since he allegedly killed a fellow inmate, 82-year-old Tom Carlin, at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning in September. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Villanueva is also charged with the slaying last May of 37-year-old Rosemary Barrasa of Bloomington, who was stabbed multiple times with a screwdriver in a car parked alongside Interstate 10 in Whitewater.

Markham told CNS that her husband has been incensed about his treatment in AD-SEG, mostly because of the curbs on his ability to communicate with her and their two children.

“He’s locked down 23.5 hours a day, and he and the other segregated inmates are supposed to take showers, make phone calls, get exercise in 30 minutes? How does anybody do all that stuff in so little time?” she said last week.

According to the woman, jail personnel do not maintain a schedule letting the inmates know in advance when they will have 30 minutes to get out of their cells, making it difficult for them to prioritize. Gutierrez said the segregated inmates are turned out individually at intervals, anytime between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.

“We put these protocols in place for the safety of everyone in the jail,” he said. “Inmates are treated fairly. We take safety seriously.”

According to Markham, since her husband and the other inmates began their strike, jail personnel have exacted retribution in the form of revoking commissary and visitation privileges, but Gutierrez flatly denied that.

“That’s absolutely untrue,” he told CNS. “No one has been denied access to the commissary to buy soup, snacks or beverages.”

The AD-SEG inmates are rejecting meal trays delivered three times a day, but it was unclear how many were also abstaining from buying goods from the commissary during their 30-minute breaks, according to sheriff’s officials.

Gutierrez said that earlier this week, the visitor elevator at the jail broke down, preventing some families from seeing their loved ones locked up in AD-SEG and other wards. Some inmates and their relatives interpreted the action as deliberate and a direct response to the strike, but it was just a coincidence, according to the assistant sheriff.

“It was not a retaliatory measure,” he said.

Inmates are being monitored by medical and psychiatric staff around the clock to ensure none of them develop health complications as a result of the strike, Gutierrez said.

As for the inmates’ complaints? They’re being reviewed.

“We’re always looking at processes to see how can improve,” Gutierrez told CNS. “We’ll evaluate this with our staff. But I’m not about to negotiate safety and security.”

The prisoner advocacy groups All of Us or None of Us and Starting Over Inc. are supporting the hunger strike and calling on county officials to publicly address the inmates’ complaints.

— City News Service

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