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.