A shiny tear streaked down Angelique Topete's cheek as she stood outside the West Gate of San Quentin State Prison on Saturday, talking about her husband, Marco Antonio Topete, who's locked up inside on death row, unable to have any physical contact with her or their 5-year-old daughter.
"Our daughter can't touch her dad," she said, explaining that visits are conducted behind glass, and that they must speak over a telephone. "She will look at the prisoners on the mainline and say, 'Why can't I hold my dad's hand?' It's not only inhumane to the prisoners, but also to their families. I don't understand why they have to punish the families."
The 43-year-old San Pablo woman was among some 60 people, many of them family members of prisoners and former prisoners, who demonstrated outside San Quentin's West Gate in support of inmates who were on the 27th day of a hunger strike, protesting the California Department of Corrections' (CDC) practice of holding prisoners for indefinite periods in solitary confinement.
Demonstrators held banners that said "Stop the Torture" and chanted, "How do you spell cruelty? CDC."
Topete's 41-year-old husband spent eight years in the "secure housing unit" at Pelican Bay State Prison before being released in 2007.
"They kept him in solitary confinement and then they threw him out into society," she said. "He would have night terrors. I would hear him screaming, and he couldn't breathe."
The following year, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder with four special circumstances and sentenced him to death for the fatal shooting of a sheriff's deputy in Davis.
His wife said he has been moved from death row to the San Quentin "adjustment center," which she described as "solitary confinement within San Quentin." He was one of the hunger strikers until his kidneys started to fail and he chose to begin eating, she said, but he still supports the strikers and is trying to find other ways to help the cause.
More than 300 inmates have refused all meals since the strike began on July 8. About 30,000 inmates initially participated.
"The strikers are doing what they believe and they are not going to stop until something changes," Topete said, adding, "We we are their voices on the outside."
In addition to ending solitary confinement, the strikers' five demands include "constructive programs" that will help inmates transition back into society after their release.
Among the demonstrators was 19-year-old Nalya Rodriguez, a former gang member who is now a pre-law student at the University of California at Berkeley. She said she's involved in a campus group trying to establish a program modeled on San Francisco State University's Project Rebound, which has helped hundreds of former prisoners obtain college degrees.
"They don't have enough programs to help incarcerated people move on," Rodriguez said. "What the prisons do is continue to keep the cycle of poverty in our communities."
On Friday, advocates for the strikers met with the state prisons chief, pushing for an end to practices they say are inhumane. The meeting came after nearly 100 family members of hunger strikers went to the state Capitol last week and presented a 60,000-signature petition demanding negotiations between hunger strikers and Gov. Jerry Brown.
After the hour-long meeting with Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, mediators who support the protesting inmates issued a statement saying they offered ideas for ending the hunger strike and improving prison conditions.
"He received us well and listened to our concerns and those of the prisoners and their families," the statement said.
Ron Ahnen, president of California Prison Focus, who was among those who met with Beard, declined to elaborate on the secretary's response to their suggestions.
Contact Paul Liberatore via email at firstname.lastname@example.org