News

San Mateo County inmates win demands after 10-day hunger strike

Inmates complained of unfair food prices, lack of video visits

Protesters rally outside the Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City to support inmates who were on their 10th day of a hunger strike on June 25. Photo by Kate Bradshaw.

Rodrigo Prieto and other inmates in a San Mateo County jail didn't eat for 10 days, striking in protest of unfair food prices and a lack of video visits. But then, they won.

Prieto led a hunger strike within the Maguire Correctional Facility, a San Mateo County jail located in Redwood City, that demanded an end to price gouging within the county's commissary system and pushed for expanded phone and video visitation access for inmates.

The Almanac spoke with him on his last day of the strike, June 25. His body ached, his joints hurt and his eyes had started to look sunken in, he said.

But by then, his cause had started to gain momentum. Outside the Redwood City jail that night, a group of about 40 people rallied, shouting their support for him and his fellow hunger strikers.

"The only thing they have to protest with is their body," Missy, an activist who was formerly incarcerated, said to the crowd. The protesters stood outside, banging drums and pots and pans, blaring sirens, blowing whistles, honking car horns and chanting statements such as, "We hear you. We see you. We will fight for you. We love you. Your voice is not lost."

Missy, a protester, speaks into a megaphone as attendees listen during a rally at the Maguire Correctional Facility to support a hunger strike. Photo by Kate Bradshaw.

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The rally was followed by an email campaign, with at least 30 people emailing the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and county Sheriff Carlos Bolanos expressing support for the strike. And it was accompanied by a petition Prieto had launched on the website change.org, which had garnered about 1,700 online signatures as of Friday.

By then, Prieto and the other hunger strikers learned their demands had been met and broke their strike, according to Prieto's girlfriend, Deyna Cortez, who helped organize the rally.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office renegotiated commissary prices with its third-party commissary vendor, Keefe Group, and will align prices with those in San Francisco County, starting on Sunday. The county will also start to provide all inmates with two free 30-minute video visits per week, according to Paula Canny, a Burlingame-based attorney who represented the hunger strikers.

Canny worked with the strikers and their families to negotiate with the Sheriff's Office, which she threatened to sue if it did not meet the strikers' demands.

The San Mateo County Sheriffs Office and Keefe Group did not respond to requests for comment.

'It's an insane system'

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On June 16, 16 inmates at the Maguire Correctional Facility initially started their hunger strike in response to the disparate and arbitrarily high prices at the jail's shop, or commissary, where people can buy basic food and hygiene items.

As the strike went on, some inmates stopped because their bodies couldn't take it, said a family member to one of the inmates. Others bailed out.

Yet others had started boycotting the commissary in solidarity. And another pod within the jail had started its own strike which had gone on for four days as of Thursday, according to Cortez.

As the strike went on, the protesters expanded their demands to ask for free phone calls, as are offered in San Francisco and Santa Clara county jails, and to have video devices repaired and accessible so that inmates could have video visits with friends and family members.

Since the pandemic struck, visitors have not been allowed at the jail in person, and the jail's video visit system has not been working, Canny said.

Mercy, a protester, addresses the crowd at a rally outside the Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City to support inmates participating in a hunger strike. Photo by Kate Bradshaw.

She said she reviewed the price lists in commissary items and identified clear and significant differences between the prices for various food and hygiene items offered at the in-jail store, or commissary between counties across the state, she said.

In comparing lists of sales prices for the same items available in both San Mateo and San Francisco county jails, she found glaring disparities that revealed significant mark-ups beyond market value in San Mateo County, she said.

A packet of Pop Tarts costs $1.10 in San Mateo County jail and 75 cents in jail in San Francisco, 46% more. A packet of Fritos is $1.20 in San Mateo County and 50 cents in San Francisco, a whopping 140% more, Canny said. And the same 3-ounce bar of Freshscent soap costs 52 cents in San Francisco and 70 cents in San Mateo County, or 34% more, according to documents Canny provided The Almanac.

Many county sheriff's offices contract independently with vendors over commissary goods and their pricing. San Mateo County contracts with Keefe Group, a St. Louis-based company that has commissary contracts with many counties nationwide. Its arm that specializes in care packages for prisoners has also been identified as having disparate pricing systems.

"It's an insane system," Canny said.

'Our families are jobless out there'

The Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City is one of San Mateo County's two jails. Photo by Kate Bradshaw.

That these inmates were willing to wage a potentially life-or-death hunger strike over price differences of less than a dollar in some cases, in one of California's most affluent counties, is striking.

"San Mateo County, they're like one of the richest counties in California. They're not offering help at all to (any) of us in here and our families are stretched," said Prieto, who grew up in South San Francisco. "They've just got so much money invested in the sheriff's office that they can afford to help the inmates out without anything happening to them," he said.

Inmates are not permitted to earn any money, which means that the burden of paying commissary costs falls largely on the family members of the incarcerated, Canny said.

Because inmates are predominantly men, that often leaves their partners and family members to shoulder those costs, Canny said. Many people responsible for funding commissary costs are their female household members, and some bear the additional burden of parenting solo while their partner is incarcerated.

Add to those existing stressors a global pandemic and a countywide unemployment rate that has quintupled since January, and the conditions that led 16 inmates to put their bodies on the line to fight for fairer prices emerged.

"With the pandemic going on, San Mateo County hasn't really offered us any help, you know. We had no contact with our family, the commissary prices are ridiculous, they're way above market value, and we just felt it's unjust the way they treated us. ... We kept asking and asking for lower prices, because our families are jobless out there," Prieto said.

"We went through every motion and we felt we had no option but to go on the hunger strike."

On day 10 of the strike, he said, "It's just been hard the whole way. ... I'm praying that something good comes out of this."

'I don't make a lot. … This isn't right.'

Protesters march outside the Maguire Correctional Facility to support inmates striking for fair food prices and other demands on June 25. Photo by Kate Bradshaw.

Carolyn D., a Redwood City resident, said at a rally outside the jail on Thursday evening that her "dude" was one of the participants in the hunger strike.

If he weren't incarcerated, he'd be helping her care for two children. With him in jail, she's become the sole provider to pay for his commissary needs, she said. The two of them had agreed that she would take on that financial burden to relieve his sick mother. She said she puts in about $200 every week or every two weeks, but it is a struggle.

"I don't make a lot," she said. "It's hard. Families are struggling. … This isn't right."

After 10 days of not eating, Cortez said she was worried Prieto was losing hope. Thinking about his condition made it hard for her to think straight, hounded by what ifs – what if he faints? What if he falls asleep and doesn't wake up?

The hunger strike, she said, didn't have to be his fight – his commissary costs are paid regularly by his sister and mother. He did it for the other inmates and their families, she said. "He's a people person."

"I get it," she said. "He's standing up for cause for a cause, not just for himself but for the inmates there with him, for future generations as well, because he thinks that this is so unfair and inhumane."

Organizer Deyna Cortez addresses attendees of a protest outside the Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City on June 25. Her boyfriend, Rodrigo Prieto, was leading the hunger strike inside. Photo by Kate Bradshaw.

"It's scary to know you have to fight for something that should already be given to you. You should be able to afford food," she said.

Another family member of an inmate was in attendance at the rally, pushing a stroller back and forth as she talked.

She pays for the inmate's commissary costs and said that there's a fee of about $8 required each time one deposits money. She said that the food quality in the jail is bad, and just about all of the foods available for purchase though the commissary are unhealthy.

"It's really poor quality," she said.

The inmates, she said, were "not asking for something ridiculous, especially right now. People lost their jobs. … There's just no compassion for them and their families."

Other family members also raised concerns about health and safety inside the jail during the pandemic.

Two women, who identified themselves as loved ones to an inmate, had traveled three hours from Stanislaus County to attend the rally and show their support for the inmates. They had heard from the inmate that the room he stays in is dirty and he was not provided with soap or other cleaning materials. They didn't know if he was one of the participants in the hunger strike.

When the strike ended, Cortez told The Almanac that she felt happy and relieved, but mostly proud of Prieto and the other inmates who stood by their cause through the pain and didn't give up.

"Their voices were finally heard," she said.

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San Mateo County inmates win demands after 10-day hunger strike

Inmates complained of unfair food prices, lack of video visits

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Fri, Jun 26, 2020, 7:03 pm

Rodrigo Prieto and other inmates in a San Mateo County jail didn't eat for 10 days, striking in protest of unfair food prices and a lack of video visits. But then, they won.

Prieto led a hunger strike within the Maguire Correctional Facility, a San Mateo County jail located in Redwood City, that demanded an end to price gouging within the county's commissary system and pushed for expanded phone and video visitation access for inmates.

The Almanac spoke with him on his last day of the strike, June 25. His body ached, his joints hurt and his eyes had started to look sunken in, he said.

But by then, his cause had started to gain momentum. Outside the Redwood City jail that night, a group of about 40 people rallied, shouting their support for him and his fellow hunger strikers.

"The only thing they have to protest with is their body," Missy, an activist who was formerly incarcerated, said to the crowd. The protesters stood outside, banging drums and pots and pans, blaring sirens, blowing whistles, honking car horns and chanting statements such as, "We hear you. We see you. We will fight for you. We love you. Your voice is not lost."

The rally was followed by an email campaign, with at least 30 people emailing the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and county Sheriff Carlos Bolanos expressing support for the strike. And it was accompanied by a petition Prieto had launched on the website change.org, which had garnered about 1,700 online signatures as of Friday.

By then, Prieto and the other hunger strikers learned their demands had been met and broke their strike, according to Prieto's girlfriend, Deyna Cortez, who helped organize the rally.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office renegotiated commissary prices with its third-party commissary vendor, Keefe Group, and will align prices with those in San Francisco County, starting on Sunday. The county will also start to provide all inmates with two free 30-minute video visits per week, according to Paula Canny, a Burlingame-based attorney who represented the hunger strikers.

Canny worked with the strikers and their families to negotiate with the Sheriff's Office, which she threatened to sue if it did not meet the strikers' demands.

The San Mateo County Sheriffs Office and Keefe Group did not respond to requests for comment.

On June 16, 16 inmates at the Maguire Correctional Facility initially started their hunger strike in response to the disparate and arbitrarily high prices at the jail's shop, or commissary, where people can buy basic food and hygiene items.

As the strike went on, some inmates stopped because their bodies couldn't take it, said a family member to one of the inmates. Others bailed out.

Yet others had started boycotting the commissary in solidarity. And another pod within the jail had started its own strike which had gone on for four days as of Thursday, according to Cortez.

As the strike went on, the protesters expanded their demands to ask for free phone calls, as are offered in San Francisco and Santa Clara county jails, and to have video devices repaired and accessible so that inmates could have video visits with friends and family members.

Since the pandemic struck, visitors have not been allowed at the jail in person, and the jail's video visit system has not been working, Canny said.

She said she reviewed the price lists in commissary items and identified clear and significant differences between the prices for various food and hygiene items offered at the in-jail store, or commissary between counties across the state, she said.

In comparing lists of sales prices for the same items available in both San Mateo and San Francisco county jails, she found glaring disparities that revealed significant mark-ups beyond market value in San Mateo County, she said.

A packet of Pop Tarts costs $1.10 in San Mateo County jail and 75 cents in jail in San Francisco, 46% more. A packet of Fritos is $1.20 in San Mateo County and 50 cents in San Francisco, a whopping 140% more, Canny said. And the same 3-ounce bar of Freshscent soap costs 52 cents in San Francisco and 70 cents in San Mateo County, or 34% more, according to documents Canny provided The Almanac.

Many county sheriff's offices contract independently with vendors over commissary goods and their pricing. San Mateo County contracts with Keefe Group, a St. Louis-based company that has commissary contracts with many counties nationwide. Its arm that specializes in care packages for prisoners has also been identified as having disparate pricing systems.

"It's an insane system," Canny said.

That these inmates were willing to wage a potentially life-or-death hunger strike over price differences of less than a dollar in some cases, in one of California's most affluent counties, is striking.

"San Mateo County, they're like one of the richest counties in California. They're not offering help at all to (any) of us in here and our families are stretched," said Prieto, who grew up in South San Francisco. "They've just got so much money invested in the sheriff's office that they can afford to help the inmates out without anything happening to them," he said.

Inmates are not permitted to earn any money, which means that the burden of paying commissary costs falls largely on the family members of the incarcerated, Canny said.

Because inmates are predominantly men, that often leaves their partners and family members to shoulder those costs, Canny said. Many people responsible for funding commissary costs are their female household members, and some bear the additional burden of parenting solo while their partner is incarcerated.

Add to those existing stressors a global pandemic and a countywide unemployment rate that has quintupled since January, and the conditions that led 16 inmates to put their bodies on the line to fight for fairer prices emerged.

"With the pandemic going on, San Mateo County hasn't really offered us any help, you know. We had no contact with our family, the commissary prices are ridiculous, they're way above market value, and we just felt it's unjust the way they treated us. ... We kept asking and asking for lower prices, because our families are jobless out there," Prieto said.

"We went through every motion and we felt we had no option but to go on the hunger strike."

On day 10 of the strike, he said, "It's just been hard the whole way. ... I'm praying that something good comes out of this."

Carolyn D., a Redwood City resident, said at a rally outside the jail on Thursday evening that her "dude" was one of the participants in the hunger strike.

If he weren't incarcerated, he'd be helping her care for two children. With him in jail, she's become the sole provider to pay for his commissary needs, she said. The two of them had agreed that she would take on that financial burden to relieve his sick mother. She said she puts in about $200 every week or every two weeks, but it is a struggle.

"I don't make a lot," she said. "It's hard. Families are struggling. … This isn't right."

After 10 days of not eating, Cortez said she was worried Prieto was losing hope. Thinking about his condition made it hard for her to think straight, hounded by what ifs – what if he faints? What if he falls asleep and doesn't wake up?

The hunger strike, she said, didn't have to be his fight – his commissary costs are paid regularly by his sister and mother. He did it for the other inmates and their families, she said. "He's a people person."

"I get it," she said. "He's standing up for cause for a cause, not just for himself but for the inmates there with him, for future generations as well, because he thinks that this is so unfair and inhumane."

"It's scary to know you have to fight for something that should already be given to you. You should be able to afford food," she said.

Another family member of an inmate was in attendance at the rally, pushing a stroller back and forth as she talked.

She pays for the inmate's commissary costs and said that there's a fee of about $8 required each time one deposits money. She said that the food quality in the jail is bad, and just about all of the foods available for purchase though the commissary are unhealthy.

"It's really poor quality," she said.

The inmates, she said, were "not asking for something ridiculous, especially right now. People lost their jobs. … There's just no compassion for them and their families."

Other family members also raised concerns about health and safety inside the jail during the pandemic.

Two women, who identified themselves as loved ones to an inmate, had traveled three hours from Stanislaus County to attend the rally and show their support for the inmates. They had heard from the inmate that the room he stays in is dirty and he was not provided with soap or other cleaning materials. They didn't know if he was one of the participants in the hunger strike.

When the strike ended, Cortez told The Almanac that she felt happy and relieved, but mostly proud of Prieto and the other inmates who stood by their cause through the pain and didn't give up.

"Their voices were finally heard," she said.

Comments

Ana B
another community
on Jun 26, 2020 at 10:34 pm
Ana B , another community
on Jun 26, 2020 at 10:34 pm
11 people like this

God bless Rodrigo Prieto and the other participants who went on the hunger strike! So glad that he was able to make a historical change in the corrupt jail system! Much love


Sir Topham Hatt
Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jun 26, 2020 at 11:20 pm
Sir Topham Hatt , Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jun 26, 2020 at 11:20 pm
11 people like this

If only there was some way to not be where you have to pay these excessive prices..... Hmmm, maybe it will come to me later.

Actually a packet of Pop Tarts for $1.10 is a pretty good deal. That was a $1.50 item in the snack machine back at the railroad station.


G.R.
another community
on Jun 27, 2020 at 7:11 am
G.R., another community
on Jun 27, 2020 at 7:11 am
17 people like this

Jailtime is hard enough without what some people consider "small" overcharges. It may seem small to you, Sir Topham, but it not so to others. Many are locked up due to problems that should be treated outside of a prison environment including mental health and addiction problems, and others are there because of overpolicing and racial profiling.


Menlo Voter.
Menlo Park: other
on Jun 27, 2020 at 8:06 am
Menlo Voter., Menlo Park: other
on Jun 27, 2020 at 8:06 am
5 people like this

"overpolicing" What is that?


case dismissed
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jun 27, 2020 at 9:02 am
case dismissed, Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jun 27, 2020 at 9:02 am
7 people like this

Q: "overpolicing" What is that?

Example: "Sonoma County to dismiss more than 2,700 marijuana convictions"


Menlo Voter.
Menlo Park: other
on Jun 27, 2020 at 5:18 pm
Menlo Voter., Menlo Park: other
on Jun 27, 2020 at 5:18 pm
2 people like this

case dismissed:

that doesn't really answer the question. Those cases are being dismissed because marijuana was subsequently legalized.

So, what is "overpolicing"?


Bewick’s Wren
Menlo Park: other
on Jun 27, 2020 at 7:31 pm
Bewick’s Wren, Menlo Park: other
on Jun 27, 2020 at 7:31 pm
6 people like this

<< So, what is "overpolicing"? >>

case dismissed, I hope that by now your curiosity has spurred you to Google the term and browse the many results the search engine will present to you, to get an idea of how over-policing is defined by the various groups of people who have studied it. It’s not a fringe term that someone just made up in the Almanac comments section.

Whether you are more inclined to credit articles from a libertarian think tank or from a progressive collective, there is plenty out there to educate you on the concept of over-policing, the evidence for it, the various arguments against and proposed remedies for it.

Enjoy your learning journey!


Ty
another community
on Jun 28, 2020 at 5:34 am
Ty, another community
on Jun 28, 2020 at 5:34 am
3 people like this

Scary that it asks where specifically in the county you are. The overpricing is a lot worse than you think when you take into account fees. A 3 day wait for the items and then you find out that because you get jothing because you didnt write the date. They were sold out. Or the tax on non-food items messed up your math...bye shampoo!
They wont even hand out free fish kits anymore (free cheap bar soap, ineffective tooth brush, a comb, and tooth paste i would not use if avoidable (dawn mist from india...colgate is expensive but worth it.
We need those bc these deputies wont let you have more than one bar of soap. Also i worked in the kitchen. Sorry Lucy, the perks you get for the ONLY working gig in San Mateo is not worth it: you make all the slop food- you never have to eat it! just spend 8 hours of your day up on time work steadily and QUIETLY, and make sure you volunteer, or your ass is back to trying to buy an extra chicken tray...soft baked at 235 f for 2 hours. It is an insanely expensive to just have coffee every day. Or sweetner packets!!! theyre 16 cents EACH OFF BRAND! 5 packets for a dollar? they come in boxes 200 for a dollar at safeway. San Mateo is the worst county to do time in: overpriced, coerced into ineffective courses which take no time off your sentence (allegedly theres more rec but trust me...no theres not. only when we have cool deputies and theres no problems. Whats a problem? EVERYTHING. I cant help but suppress a laugh when i see the writeups. Laundry violations? You know how old these clothes are? You kept a peanut butter from lunch? violation!!!! This is why we protest. Because grievances paint targets not progress...eventually itll be a law suit. frequently put in cuffs at 3 am sat outside and getting the dorm tossed by deputies. Who are throwing away things like Decorations. Maybe a pillow. UH OH were you playing dominoes...inside your cell instead of out??? dont even bother coming outside tommorrow or youll be back 2 man cells. #FSM#PUBLIC NOT PRIVATE#NEVERWAIVETIME#NOPRIVATEPRETENDERS


Menlo Voter.
Menlo Park: other
on Jun 28, 2020 at 8:52 am
Menlo Voter., Menlo Park: other
on Jun 28, 2020 at 8:52 am
3 people like this

Bewick:

you think maybe I was asking the poster if they actually know what the term means? They still haven't answered the question. People are really good at throwing around terms they have no idea the meaning of.


Ali Mad
another community
on Jun 29, 2020 at 12:14 pm
Ali Mad, another community
on Jun 29, 2020 at 12:14 pm
3 people like this

San Mateo County has waaaaay more problems than this, but it's a good start. They lock down inmates 20 to 23 hours a day. Intake is 23 hours a day for up to 2 weeks. They wake them at 3 am for breakfast, Marin changed to 5 am along with a lot of other counties, they don't assign a tablet like Santa Rita (Alameda), which allows contact with family and friends. They haze, they deny the right to vote, they violate ADA and HIPPA. And even so much more beyond that. Maple Street is a max security facility. "All" the deputies prefer the old women's jail. There is no sunlight, they didn't clean up the toxic under the jail at "Chemical Way", it's why J. Paul can't make residential only commercial, due to contaminated soil, the pipes burst in the basement, rendering "in person" visits impossible. Even when booked, visits are cancelled or switched from "in person" to video, or altogether denied at the last minute. Maple Street is a shite show, women mostly with drug or low level property offenses, it's trafficking, they are melting down, being pulled out of intake and GP to "red and mental" b/c of the hazing and lockdown. It's inhumane.


Mohan Iyer
Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Jun 29, 2020 at 12:19 pm
Mohan Iyer, Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Jun 29, 2020 at 12:19 pm
4 people like this

Phone calls should be free right now. It’s the right thing to do. Please see further justification of viewpoint here: Web Link


Why isn't the Vendor Local?
Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jun 29, 2020 at 1:15 pm
Why isn't the Vendor Local?, Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jun 29, 2020 at 1:15 pm
4 people like this

"Keefe Group, a St. Louis-based company" ..... Not even in California? WHY?
Are they trucking Poptarts 2000+ miles?


Dora Campos
another community
on Jul 3, 2020 at 11:51 am
Dora Campos, another community
on Jul 3, 2020 at 11:51 am
Like this comment

San Mateo is full of Corruption at all levels.Almost all rights are violated there, the men get punished for not being able to breath when the so called air conditioning is not working.Ive had to hear my relative wish for death instead of dying a slow death due to suffocation, and he has a Lawyer, and they dont fight for their clients rights either, they steal personal items of mail and other things, they lock the men down for days at a time,they do not allow the 3 hours per week of outside,or excersise time, the incarcerate the innocent, they're great at framing and racial profiling, they're all connected and corrupt, Why wont even an inmate's Lawyer speak out on their behalf? Even after they've been paid in full? We are a not a rich family, we all chip in for every single thing having to do with his situation and he hates to ask or tell us what's really going on there out of fear of punishment or death, it's very real in at San Mateo Correctional. And with the Covid-19, pandemic, it got even worse, no visits of any kind( until last week) with the newly added video visits we've been begging for, that glitches or doesn't even work so you get no visit, but you PAID for it, since they use an outside vendor, and the Jail,can do nothing about it when its happening, so you lose your visit, and that's that, who cares about the little money lost for that visit, I dont, but I do care how each man feels and their families and children when they get let down once again.Imagine how that must feel for them inside with no voice no controls and having to beg for basic necessities like soap ,toiletpaper, they have run out, trust me. They target the Latin/Hispanic /Brown people, and the poor, they are organized crime at the highest level. The D.A. and its assistants are trash, corrupt money makers,who violate their oaths to the people and state. I can go on and on with true facts of the major corruption their.Even the Lawyer said, San Mateo is the worst place to do time, while waiting for a trial that may never come, due to the corrupt system there. It's been an awful journey that makes a person wish for death rather than see your family member suffer so much h at the hands of that corrupt place. To wish for death of your family member rather than watch them suffer a slow death is the ultimate sacrifice that should not be a reality. Those men in there are extraordinarily strong, to be able to endure daily corruption and torture of all kinds..SHUT IT DOWN FIRE ALL THE CORRUPT JUDGES AND D.A's, CORRUPT POLICE WHO falsely imprison our people!


Dora C
another community
on Jul 3, 2020 at 12:25 pm
Dora C, another community
on Jul 3, 2020 at 12:25 pm
Like this comment

Thank you Mr. Prieto, for doing this in the name of human rights. Thank you to his partner, Deyna Cortez, for being so involved and having great love for him and your family and for having love for so many that have no voice in the system. Thank you, Missy, and all of you who help make this happen. I'd like to help too. THANK YOU ALL! So much! Selfless humans fighting for voiceless humans.


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