Prisoner leads hunger strike to protest conditions at Santa Rita Jail in California

A prisoner at an infamous California jail led a hunger strike to protest poor food quality, lacking medical care and retaliation from jail staff.

Jazz Svarda, 34, was among several prisoners taking part in a hunger strike for about two weeks at Santa Rita Jail, an Alameda County facility with a history of health and safety violations. He ended his protest Monday, he said, for fear that jail staff would not help him if he were to face a health emergency as a result of the strike. 

“My health was declining way too fast,” Svarda said, noting that he’s now relying on food purchased from the commissary rather than eating meals provided by the jail. “I’m afraid if I go too far, they’ll just let me die. But I’m still holding them accountable, I’m still putting in grievances. I still haven’t eaten their food, because it’s traumatizing that trash is in the food. I don’t trust them.”

Svarda began the strike late last month after swallowing a staple in his breakfast that became lodged in his throat, Svarda’s friend Hana Sallak, who has been in daily contact with Svarda, said he told her. “He felt like he was choking,” she added. He managed to pull it out, but he told her he did not receive adequate medical attention after the incident. 

Jazz Svarda.
Jazz Svarda.Courtesy Hana Sallak

“He feels like that was done in retaliation because he’s always asking for badge numbers and filing grievances,” Sallak said. “What are the chances that a staple would be in his food?” 

Svarda was booked into the Dublin, California facility in January for violating the terms of his supervised release after he was initially incarcerated on a federal robbery charge, jail records show. His attorney George Boisseau said Svarda was sentenced this week to 37 months, including time served. Boisseau declined to comment on the hunger strike. 

Jail spokeswoman Lt. Tya Modeste cast doubt on Svarda’s story in an interview. She claimed that medical personnel monitored Svarda regularly and recorded a 2-pound weight loss from before and after the strike. Modeste said Svarda was found eating food on Monday, the day he ended the strike. 

“I have a very difficult time believing that somebody who starved themselves for two weeks only lost two pounds. I don’t believe he was ever on a hunger strike,” she said. As for Svarda’s claims that he swallowed a staple, Modeste said, “I don’t believe anything he says.” 

Svarda told KTVU that he and other prisoners are urging jail officials to address a bevy of alleged issues: retaliation from staff, delayed or no medical care, moldy bathrooms, poor working conditions and missing mail. 

Svarda’s situation follows a string of controversies at Santa Rita Jail. Last week, a prisoner whose name has not been released, died after he was found frantically drinking water and vomiting inside his cell. It marked the fifth reported death at the jail this year. 

Advocacy groups like Critical Resistance, Restore Oakland and the Care First Community Coalition have rallied outside the jail to protest the number of in-custody deaths. A majority of the deaths have been either drug-related or the result of exacerbated, and poorly treated, mental health issues, advocates said at a protest in April. The jail has seen numerous overdose deaths, including eight over a two-week period in early February, the Mercury News reported.

The Care First Community Coalition championed “Care First, Jails Last,” a policy Alameda County adopted in 2021 to expand community services and reduce the number of people with mental health issues and drug dependency incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail. Under the policy, a task force was formed to put forth recommendations in accordance with the policy’s goals. Joy George, of Restore Oakland, said advocates are still awaiting the recommendations. 

“Nearly 70 people have died in Santa Rita Jail since 2014, and we are tracking five deaths this year alone,” George said, noting that prisoners with mental health or drug issues are especially vulnerable. “Instead of being treated in community, or properly housed, they are being placed knowingly into unsafe conditions that are not suitable for their healing or recovery.”

A KTVU investigation found that Santa Rita Jail had 13.6 deaths per 1,000 inmates over a five-year period, surpassing the Los Angeles County jail system, the largest in the country, which had 8.9 deaths. 

Along with the dozens of deaths at the jail since 2014, the facility has been the subject of numerous lawsuits since at least the mid-1990s. In a report released last year, the Alameda County Grand Jury detailed myriad issues at the jail, including unsanitary living conditions, poor health care, poor food quality and a culture of abuse toward prisoners. 

“The presence of feces smeared on walls and foul odors in several cells described as being available for immediate occupancy suggests to the Grand Jury a systemic issue with the quality of cleaning and sanitation of temporary occupancy cells,” the grand jury report states. 

Seven people died at the jail in 2021, according to the report. And Covid ravaged the facility, with 20% of prisoners testing positive for the virus at the peak of an unprecedented outbreak in January 2022, according to the report. 

“I didn’t feel good about my clients being there,” attorney John Burris said, adding that he’s hopeful that new leadership in Oakland, including the mayor and other newly appointed leaders, will bring positive changes. “A lot of those death cases could have been handled differently. People wouldn’t have died if they’d treated them in a skilled way, and acknowledged their conditions quicker, we would not have so many suicides, so many death cases,” the attorney added.

Burris has filed several lawsuits against the jail for deaths and other alleged violations, including one for the family of Christian Madrigal, a 20-year-old who died after being booked into the jail during a mental health episode. His parents called the police to have Madrigal taken to a psychiatric facility, but they took him to the jail instead, the Mercury News reported. Jail staff allegedly left Madrigal alone and soon found him with a chain wrapped around his neck in a suicide attempt. He died later at a hospital, according to the Mercury News. 

His family sued the county for wrongful death and excessive force and, last year, the county agreed to pay $5 million to the family. One sheriff’s lieutenant was fired as a result of the death. 

A year before the grand jury released its report, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division found that Santa Rita Jail violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating against prisoners with mental health issues, placing them in restrictive housing and failing to provide adequate mental health care. As a result, at least 14 prisoners died by suicide between 2015 and 2019, the investigation found. And two prisoners died by suicide at the jail within two months of the report being published. 

Modeste told KQED that the sheriff’s office has implemented several initiatives such as building a focus group, encouraging federal oversight and working with community groups to create better conditions for people incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail. 

“We send out press releases on every single death in our effort to be more transparent than we ever have been,” Modeste told NBC News. “That has been happening under the new administration since January. All of the information that we can put out without jeopardizing an investigation goes out immediately.” 

As for Svarda, although he ended the hunger strike, he’s going to continue documenting mistreatment at the facility, he said.

“There needs to be more accountability,” Svarda said. “They’re lying and not holding each other accountable, and I’m gonna expose that.”

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