RIVERSIDE – An inmate awaiting trial for two murders has organized a hunger strike that began Friday, April 14, at the Robert Presley Detention Center, vowing to reject all meals for the next 18 days to protest treatment of detainees in isolation at the Riverside jail and other county lockups.
“He’s locked down 23.5 hours a day, and he and the other segregated inmates are supposed to take showers, make phone calls, get exercise in 30 minutes? How does anybody do all that stuff in so little time?” Nancy Markham, wife of strike orchestrator Rigoberto Villanueva, told City News Service.
According to Markham, Villanueva, 40, has enlisted as many as 100 other inmates through the jail grapevine to join the strike until May 1.
The exact extent of participation in the hunger strike was not immediately clear. Riverside County sheriff’s Deputy Michael Vasquez said officials were still assessing the situation.
“We know there’s something going on, we’re just not sure what and how many people,” Vasquez told CNS.
Markham said that since last fall, Villanueva has been in RPDC’s “AG-SEG” unit, where prisoners are placed when they’re deemed a threat to fellow inmates, and since then he has filed repeated complaints with jail officials asking for policy changes that would make his and other segregated detainees’ time behind bars less onerous.
“They’re not taking this seriously,” the Fontana woman said. “I spoke with a lieutenant who told me they are not looking at changing anything. I was told it’s been this way since 1950.”
Villanueva’s chief complaint has been lack of access to the jail phones to speak with his and Markham’s two children, she said. In addition to a 15-minute limit to speak on the phone, he never knows when he’s going to get out of his isolation cell to use it – and whether the line will be active at that time, according to Markham.
“The jail turns off all the phones four days a week, for 17 hours, because they’re transporting inmates to prison,” she said. “I checked around, and none of the other counties do that.”
Fueling Villanueva’s and other segregated inmates’ frustration, Markham said, is the fact they never know when they’re going to be released to use the phones, work out, shower and read newspapers in the jail day room, making it difficult to prioritize their 30-minute daily outings.
“What’s the big deal about printing a schedule and hanging it on the wall so they know when they’re going to be out next?” she told CNS. “Rigo says he never knows. Sometimes it’s 1:30 a.m. Other days, it’s 6:45 a.m. It just seems something like that is so simple to fix. I just don’t get it.”
Markham expressed doubt that all of the inmates who have joined her husband in the strike will stick with it.
“That’s going to be a long time without food,” she said. “I know he’ll follow it through to the end, though. But I’m worried about his health.”
The prisoner advocacy groups All of Us or None of Us and Starting Over Inc. are supporting the hunger strike and calling on Riverside County officials to publicly answer the inmates’ complaints.
The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Villanueva was arrested and charged in May with first-degree murder for allegedly stabbing 37-year-old Rosemary Barrasa of Bloomington to death with a screwdriver as the two sat in a car parked along Interstate 10 in Whitewater.
Last September, he was charged with first-degree murder again, with a special-circumstance allegation of killing while incarcerated, for allegedly fatally beating fellow inmate Tom Carlin at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning.