Living Without Prison Bars

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Illustration by Caetano Santos.
Illustration by Caetano Santos.

Four inmates have died in the Santa Cruz County Jail since last August. To protest those deaths and the conditions at the jail, the Santa Cruz activist group Sin Barras organized a “Speakout” event at the Town Clock tower on April 6.

Led by the sounds of the Brass Liberation Orchestra, the crowd marched from the tower to the jail to bring awareness to unsafe conditions and a lack of medical care that Sin Barras described in a press release as amounting “to torture.”

Specifically, speakers condemned the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors for their decision to outsource county jail medical care to Monterey-based California Forensic Medical Group (CFMG). CFMG has been a defendant in several lawsuits across California over inadequate care, inmate abuse and neglect, including one in which a nurse employed by the company claimed that she contracted AIDS from inmates due to a lack of protective equipment.

Sin Barras, Spanish for “without prison bars” is a local organization that works to stop jail expansion, improve healthcare for inmates and end inhumane incarceration conditions. Many other Santa Cruz organizations and individuals raised their voices in solidarity along the parade route, including the Good Samaritan Mobile Medics, Becky Johnson of the Santa Cruz 11 and the Homeless United for Friends and Freedom (HUFF).

Standing outside of the jail, Sin Barras speakers decried the deaths of inmates that have occurred since last August, beginning with Felton resident Christy Ann Sanders who died while incarcerated for a probation violation. Inmates Brant Monnett, Rick Pritchard and Bradley Gordon Dreher have also died in the jail since then.

The participants expressed outrage over the perceived flaws of the Santa Cruz County jail, calling it representative of problems within the wider network of jails and prisons across the United States. One young woman wore a sign on her back that read, “Crime is a symptom of a culture that doesn’t nurture.”

Sin Barras urged the public to join them in mobilizing support against prison expansion, push for “de-carceration,” and attempted to demonstrate how the prison system has failed to improve crime prevention.

Tash Nguyen, a leader of Sin Barras, recounted her personal experiences of being incarcerated four times since she was a teen for political protests. She said she had been subjected to abusive strip searches and had observed violations of rules relating to family visits and protection from violence. She also said that prison breaks families apart, perpetuates violence and institutionalizes racism.

Simba, a former Black Panther, described similar experiences while in custody and said that “we all are affected because we all know a family member or a friend that has been in prison.”

Santa Cruz Sheriff Phil Wowak said the Santa Cruz County jail performed up to legally required standards for prisoner health care, family visits and protected the constitutional rights of inmates.

Becky Johnson — until recently a defendant in a case brought against her and 10 others by the Santa Cruz District Attorney for their role in the occupation of a vacant bank building two years ago — said steps must be taken to reform the jail system.

“[We need to] end the drug war, mandatory-minimum [sentences] and laws that were written to be used against people,” Johnson said.

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