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Lane County Jail (James Croxton/Daily Emerald)

Detainees in Lane County Jail have been on a hunger strike for six weeks, demanding better protections against COVID-19, the release of pre-trial detainees and right to a speedy trial. 

Between five to 10 detainees are currently participating in the strike, with nine more expected to join soon, according to Momo Wilms-Crowe, a local community organizer with Lane County Mutual Aid. LCMA is a local activist group working with those held in the prison.

The strikers have a list of six demands:

  • That the courts release all pre-trial and medically vulnerable detainees

  • The right to a fair and speedy trial as guaranteed by the constitution

  • Greatly diminished bail and bonds

  • The right for all of those detained to in-person, behind-glass social visits with friends and family

  • The right for all of those detained to in-person visits with lawyers at the behest of detainees or their lawyers

  • Access to religious services for all o­­­­f those detained

Bryan MacDonald was the first to begin striking, according to Wilms-Crowe. In a video interview with LCMA, MacDonald said his bail was set at $250,000, something he wouldn’t be able to pay while he was being held in jail. He also said he planned to take a plea deal and go to prison, which he would not have done if he was able to meet with his attorneys.

“For us, success of the strike comes when we see them stop excessively setting bail limits and start letting people out who cannot afford bail under other forms of security,” MacDonald said.

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Some of the strikers have been risking their lives, according to Wilms-Crowe. 

“One of our strikers has cancer and blood clots, and has been told by the medical professionals inside that he is likely to die before his trial date,” she said.

Lane County Sheriff Cliff Harrold said in an email statement that inmates have the right to refuse meals and the jail has medical staff on duty in case of a medical emergency. 

“Many of the inmates claiming to be on a hunger strike are eating, and those that have refused meals have done so sporadically,” he said in the statement.

Harrold said that the Circuit Court is responsible for scheduling hearings and trials, as well as determining which pre-trial detainees can be released from custody. The Lane County Jail and the Sheriff’s Office do not have the authority to make those decisions, he said.

Harrold said he instituted a number of changes in the jail, including reducing the total jail population and halving the dormitory housing cells to reduce the risk of transmission. 

Harrold said the jail has also made it possible for attorneys to meet with clients through glass.  He said inmates still have access to religious services through pre-recorded sermons and meetings with chaplains through glass.

LCMA, however, said that it is not enough. In a press release, it said it was glad to see the changes but said that they were “the most minimal concession the jail could make.”

“While the jail is doing the bare minimum to mitigate the deadly effects of Covid-19 in incarceration, only the establishment of full preventative measures will ensure the safety of incarcerated people in the state of Oregon,” the release stated.

The release also said LCMA received reports that only some of the detainees have been given access to in-person lawyer visitations and religious services.

LCMA has been organizing the public with marches, poetry reading and letter-writing campaigns through their Twitter and Instagram.