There’s been a media frenzy over the past few days about a current hunger strike happening at the Utah State Prison. UPAN organizers have been hard at work fielding questions and interviews with reporters on the matter as well as gathering the facts.
On Friday, July 31st a group of 42 inmates housed at the maximum-security Uinta 2 facility at the Utah State Prison refused breakfast and declared a hunger strike. Utah Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Brooke Adams said the inmates provided the prison a list of demands in a letter, which include among other things moving gang leaders out of a separate maximum-security unit. She also stated that all 42 of the protesting inmates are “documented gang members.” Adams wouldn’t elaborate on the details of their other demands, but she told the Salt Lake Tribune that they’re under review by prison officials. News outlets have since reported based on letters to the ACLU of Utah that the other five demands include better conditions of their confinement (especially the Special Threat Group in Uinta), the inmate classification system, programming, and out-of-cell time. The prison said in a media release stating they responded to the inmates by “offering each participating inmate the opportunity to be evaluated by medical personnel for baseline weight and other vital statistics to enable their health to be monitored while they refuse to eat,” and “the Department will continue to offer the inmates meals as regularly scheduled.” The release continues to state “the department also has inventoried food items in each participating inmate’s cell to document potential nutritional intake,” and “the department will continue to offer the inmates meals as regularly scheduled.”
On Monday the Salt Lake Tribune reported,
Several Utah State Prison inmates who are on a hunger strike have been eating food they purchased themselves from the prison commissary, prison officials said in an update Monday. The number of participants in the hunger strike held steady at 42, prison officials said. But not all of the inmates have gone completely without food since the strike began Friday morning, purportedly in protest of living conditions in the prison. One in the group has accepted breakfast trays twice, several others have received juice packets, and “staff have documented several inmates consuming commissary food in their cells,” according to a statement by prison spokeswoman Brooke Adams. Medical staff tried to conduct exams Monday, but all of the strike participants refused to be weighed and all but one refused to meet with a nurse, Adams wrote. Mental-health staff met with each inmate Monday. Two inmates with known medical conditions are being closely monitored, and each inmate has received a fact sheet about potential health effects of fasting.
The Utah Department of Corrections doesn’t agree with the way the inmates characterized the conditions in the prison. Adams continued by saying that they’ve informed the inmates that the UDC is in the process of reviewing their restrictive housing policies. They have met with the ACLU of Utah, Disability Law Center, and UPAN to gather input. The prison will continue to offer three meals per day, but they disagree with the manner of the protest. “While we respect the right of these inmates to refuse to eat, we believe there are more positive ways to raise concerns and bring about change. We do not negotiate or respond to demands, threats or intimidation from inmates,” the press release said. They continued to say, “In fact, UDC policy states that inmates who engage in a “food strike” may be subject to disciplinary action, an option the Department is now reviewing.” Utah State law does provide that prisons can force feed an inmate, but only with a judge approved court order.
The ACLU of Utah Legal Director John Mejia said that while they weren’t involved in the organizing of the hunger strike they do support the prisoners’ right to a peaceful protest. The ACLU received several dozen letters from inmates with concerns regarding the length of time spent in isolated confinement, lack of access to rehabilitation programs, poor nutritional quality of their meals (such as replacing meat with soy and cutting back from 2 pints of milk to one), lack of supplies to maintain hygiene in their cells, and inadequate medical treatment. Many of these prisoners are housed in a special threat group (STG) and consequentially are restricted to one hour outside their cells every 48 hours with only their cellmate. The rest of the time is spent locked in their cell with another inmate with little constructive activity. Details from the letter described the heavy psychological toll, causing extreme anxiety and paranoia. He said it’s not clear what types of inmates are selected for this unit or how they’re categorized, but the conditions within this facility are the primary concern. “We understand these prisoners have been determined to present a sort of special threat, but that does not mean the extreme isolation reported to us is justified,” Mejia said. He described the current policies implemented there are a major departure from the national trend focused on rehabilitation, reintegration, and prevention of recidivism of inmates. “When we hear from that many prisoners all at once, in such a short period of time, it really is an eye opener for us.” Mr. Mejia continued, “Most of these folks are going to be coming out and released into society again. If you are sending someone back into the community after years of isolation and no programming and a lot of difficult conditions, it feels in a lot of ways that you’re not setting up that person for success.”
The ACLU of Utah has released excerpts from the letters they received, while keeping the identities of the prisoners private. With regards to the lack of rehabilitative resources in the Special Threat Group (STG), one inmate said, “we have nothing in here…how are we supposed to better ourselves when we can’t get any programming?” Another inmate wrote, “this place is psychologically damaging, and these conditions are not helpful. We want to change for the better of the community, but we can’t get any programming to better ourselves.” Speaking about the condition of their confinement another inmate said, “we have had enough of these squalid living conditions and would like to be treated with respect and dignity, with the opportunity to better ourselves.”
UPAN has also received many letters and accounts from inmate and their families, primarily housed in Uinta 1 who were put there for their own protection, sometimes through no fault of their own. They’ve felt like they’ve been extra penalized by losing all of their privileges and in some cases treated the same as those who would do them harm by prison staff. Many go without phone or visiting privileges for weeks or months, so details often come to light way after the fact or once they’re moved. Limited space in Uintas often means that the inmate placed in protective custody is housed in the cell adjacent to the inmate that wish to cause them harm. Other accounts have stated that inmates that have been injured by other inmates are often times placed into close custody and can wait days or weeks before treated by medical personnel. Protected inmates in Uintas have complained that they are sent to the same infirmary (at Wasatch) as the the inmates they are supposed to be protected from. Quite a few mentally ill inmates from Uinta 1 are not receiving the counseling they require. Many are extremely depressed as well because there are little to no opportunities provided to better themselves. In an interview with KUTV News, UPAN Newsletter Editor Warren Rosenbaum stated it best, “a nation that stands for humane treatment doesn’t realize what is going on behind the walls.”
While UPAN has shared a these findings with various UDC administrators over the past 1-1/2 years, the only firm commitment they’ve made is the willingness to acknowledge the need for changes. But positive changes are on the horizon under the guidance of UDC Executive Director Rollin Cook, by trying to strike a good balance between the safety of UDC staff and the rehabilitation of it’s prisoners. Cook said at a July 21st meeting that he has dispatched Warden Crowther, Warden Bigelow, and DIO Director Jerry Pope to attend a conference on national standards for restrictive housing along with a tour of a Washington prison facility. While the current space in Uintas is very cramped, he has ordered special desks from UCI be put in place for maximum-security prisoners to start programs and classes there. They’ve also procured new funding for additional therapists. Director Cook has resolved to start implementing the new programming that is more in line with 21st century criminal rehabilitation standards within the next few months regardless of whether the prison is moved or not. Most of the major issues simply cannot be fully implemented until a new state-of-the-art prison is built to facilitate these programs, Cook said.
Utah lawmakers agreed last year to construct a new prison, but the selection of the new site has been postponed until August 11th due to intense public outcry. The age and lack of resources to manage an overpopulated prison has led to several inmate deaths in recent months such as Ramon Estrada (62), when his dialysis providers failed to give him his treatment. He was three weeks away from being released. Many more have been hospitalized, leading to employees being put on administrative leave pending an investigation. UDC has also struggled to keep staff at optimal levels, revealing in June that they are hiring up to 150 more employees. Existing employees at the prison have voiced frustration from being over stressed and over worked.
The UDC stated that 616 male prisoners of the total 3,032 incarcerated at the Utah State Prison are housed within the Uinta facility.
Update: August 5th
The Utah Department of Corrections has released another update on the hunger strike. It reports that all 42 inmates are still participating in the protest and that on Tuesday the UDC has begun reducing privilege levels of those involved. “The move is a standard consequence for acts that are disruptive to the operation of the facility or jeopardize safety and security. The result of the decrease in privileges will vary from inmate to inmate, but include loss of personal television privileges, a decrease in the amount they may spend each week on Commissary or what they may buy, and removal of some property (Commissary, televisions) from their cells,” the media release said. Several inmates refused to comply with UDC officers’ directions, covered their cell-door windows with paper, and broke sprinklers causing flooding. As a result, five inmates were moved to the prison’s highest security unit for “destruction of property, fighting and failure to follow orders.”
The release continued to thank the officers and other employees for their efforts in trying to manage and resolve the situation. UDC is continuing to offer regularly scheduled meals, and four inmates accepted breakfast while two others with pre-existing conditions accepted nutritional drinks. Brooke Adams, UDC PIO continued to add that many had previously stockpiled commissary food prior to the hunger strike and had been consuming those items. On Monday, 16 inmates received their commissary orders that were placed last week. Correctional officers have been checking on the inmates in their cells every 30 minutes, and Clinical Services have continued to meet with inmates to check on their well being, though many have refused to be examined. Adams concluded in the statement to say, “UDC staff has been working for months on a new inmate classification system, ways to increase out-of-cell time and more access to programming opportunities for maximum-security inmates — all in keeping with the national trend to revise restrictive housing policies.”
Update #2: August 5th
The Utah Department of Corrections tweeted this morning at 11:47 am that 31 of the 42 inmates participating in the hunger strike have accepted breakfast trays:
Update: This morning 31 of the 42 inmates participating in a hunger strike disturbance at the #Utah State Prison accepted breakfast trays.
— UTDeptOfCorrections (@UtahCorrections) August 5, 2015
Also, today the Salt Lake Tribune’s Trib Talk blog with Jennifer Napier-Pearce attempts to shed some more light on the situation.
Update #3: August 6th
The Utah Department of Corrections PIO Brooke Adams has said in a statement that the hunger strike has officially ended. “As of noon today, all 42 inmates have voluntarily agreed to end their hunger strike at the Utah State Prison and have accepted meal trays,” the media release reads.
In separate unrelated news released today, the UDC has also announced that on Thursday, August 6th it has given “termination notices to two employees — a physician assistant and a supervising nurse. A second supervising nurse has been given notice of a demotion, while a registered nurse has received notice of a 40-hour suspension.” This is the result of an investigation into the death of inmate Ramon Estrada (62), and lack of care provided for seven dialysis patients who were supposed to be treated between April 3rd and April 5th. Technicians for South Valley Dialysis, the University of Utah Health Care’s contracted provider, failed to show up at the prison clinic due to a scheduling error. The Clinical Services Director will be returning to work as a medical doctor and the Department will now be launching a national search for a new CSD Director.
The UDC had this to say about the investigations:
The Utah Department of Health is conducting an external review of our dialysis operation and has access to two additional, separate investigations: an internal investigation by the Department’s Law Enforcement Bureau and an outside audit by the nationally recognized health care consulting firm WELLCON. The WELLCON audit looked at the prison’s dialysis program, the prison’s overall healthcare delivery system as it relates to dialysis patients and delivery of mental health services to these inmates. That final review is expected to be finished within 90 days.
In the wake of Mr. Estrada’s death, who’s autopsy report is still in progress by the Medical Examiner’s Office, the UDC has said it has “added additional measures to improve care and tracking of inmates receiving dialysis.”