Bristol County Jail inmates refuse food, demand better conditions

May 12, 2020

More than 60 inmates at the Bristol County House of Correction participated in a protest last week by refusing to eat prepared meals for more than 24 hours.

On May 6, inmates inside the GB unit staged the hunger strike to protest what they said are poor living conditions, inadequate food and health care, and high prices.

Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Jonathan Darling said the Sheriff’s Department was unaware of any strike that happened, but did hear that inmates were unhappy with conditions at the jail.

The Bristol County facility has come under scrutiny in the past two weeks after a violent incident at its immigrations detention center saw three federal detainees hospitalized and more than $25,000 worth of damage.

But even in the regular county jail, inmates say, conditions are not ideal.

“We’re just fighting for better days in here,” said Derek Luz, an inmate who helped organize the strike. “Every time we speak up to the desk, they never do anything. We had to do this to get their attention.”

“We feel like our due process and rights are being violated,” he added.

One major request inmates are making is additional phone time to replace lost visitation hours from family and friends. 

Luz said that before the pandemic, inmates were granted two hours to see their families, but have since been allowed two free half-hour phone calls. He and other inmates would like to see a minimum of four free calls to make up the two hours of visitation time.

“We rely so much on our families, and we can’t even talk with them,” he said.

Currently, the calls are free, but Luz said they typically cost eight dollars each and expects that the free calls will eventually stop once the pandemic is over.

"My mother struggles out there, so I can only call her once a week,” Luz said.

Darling said the Sheriff's Department understands that inmates are frustrated they can’t see their families, but said the jail does plan to allow in-person visits again once there is permission from the state. 

He added that those looking to make additional free calls can do that through their attorneys.

Inmate Matthew Gotto said that those held in the facility would also like to see a tablet program implemented, saying that this is done at state prisons.

“I’ve pretty much disappeared off the face of the Earth to everyone I know,” he said. 

Inmates would also like to see the cost of food at the commissary reduced, as they allege that meals provided three times a day contain small portions and there are up to 16 hour waits between some meals.

Darling said that meals provided by the jail meet or exceed the national standards on calories, protein and other vitamins and minerals. He noted that, while a 2,000 calorie diet is recommended, the jail’s meals average around 2,700 a day.

Anything from the commissary is extra, he added.

“If they think prices are too high, then they don’t have to buy them,” Darling said.

As for medical attention, Luz said inmates are afraid to report symptoms for fear of being held in isolation cells usually reserved for punishment.

“I understand that if they have symptoms they have to be separated, but to throw them in segregation is scaring people,” he said.

Gotto said that after being treated for a sinus infection, he was tested for coronavirus and placed in isolation for seven days, missing a video court date. He was told it would take only two days for his results to come in.

“It was a nightmare,” he said. 

According to Darling, inmates tested for coronavirus have to be treated as positive cases until they get their test results. He added that Gotto’s extended stay in segregation was most likely because it took longer to get results than expected.

The strike ended on May 7 after Luz said officials would look into the inmates demands, but noted the inmates are prepared to strike again on May 12 if they do not hear back.