Published in the January 18 – January 31, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life

In October, more than 100 inmates staged a two-week hunger strike to protest conditions at Santa Clara County jails. These include what they say is the arbitrary use of solitary confinement and inadequate provisions such as clothing.

The hunger strike raises question of social justice for people in prison, and it’s a question that should be addressed by our 21st century Silicon Valley society. The strike stemmed from a civil disobedience movement by inmates in several states of America that aimed to end as a form of punishment the practice of solitary confinement for prisoners. Our county’s strike was organized by the Prisoners’ Human Rights Movement following the public scrutiny of alleged abuses in our local jail system. These abuses were spotlighted by the press and publicly-elected leaders with the 2015 beating death by correctional deputies of Michael Tyree, a mentally ill inmate held at the Santa Clara County Main Jail. Tyree’s death led to murder charges against three correctional officers. It also spurred a host of reform efforts in the county’s jails to put an end to the abuse of prisoners by jail guards.

From this background of inhuman treatment at our county’s jails, the Silicon Valley Reads community engagement program chose to put its 2017 focus on bias and social justice through the theme “… and justice for all.” This is the 15th year of this excellent program to stimulate conversation among county residents on issues that impact everyone’s quality of life. We encourage South Valley residents to engage their hearts and minds by taking part in the annual community literary dialogue that asks everyone in Silicon Valley to read, think, discuss and share diverse perspectives.

The centerpiece of this year’s literary conversation will be two books: “Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice” by Adam Benforado and “Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison” by Shaka Senghor.

Silicon Valley Reads 2017 will kick off at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23 at the Visual and Performing Arts Center at De Anza College in Cupertino where San Jose Mercury News columnist Sal Pizarro will interview author Benforado. Admission is free with open seating on a first come basis.

A New York Times bestseller, “Unfair” uses dozens of real-life vignettes and research studies to show how innate bias about race, gender, appearance, education and economic status can influence fair treatment at every step of the legal system. Benforado proposes that technology and scientific advancements could be used to instill more equity into the system.

“Writing My Wrongs” is a memoir of Senghor’s 19-year incarceration for homicide, seven years of which were spent in solitary confinement. He used this time to discover literature, meditation, self-examination and the kindness of others — tools he used to confront the demons of his past, forgive people who had hurt him and begin atoning for the wrongs he had committed.

The Morgan Hill Library will host Benforado to discuss “Unfair” on Feb. 25 afternoon (no exact time has been set yet). It will also host Arlene Biala, the Santa Clara County Poet Laureate, 7 p.m. Feb. 27 to discuss the issues of social justice. Both author visits are free to the public.

The Gilroy Library will hold several events related to Silicon Valley Reads. At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 7pm and 10:15 a.m. Friday, March 3 at 10:15, it will host a book discussion on “Writing My Wrongs,” an informal gathering for readers to share thoughts about the book. At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 1, the library will have a free film screening of “American Denial,” an hour-long documentary in which 1944 Nobel Laureate Gunnar Myrdal asks: “How could America’s belief in liberty and equality also enable Jim Crow segregation?” The film uses Myrdal’s inquiry to probe the power of unconscious biases today in what some have called post-racial America.

At 7 p.m. Monday, March 6, the Gilroy Library will hold a special Silicon Valley Reads storytime for families of the children’s selection, “Bear and Bee” by Sergio Ruzzier in both English and Spanish. At 11:30 a.m. Saturday, March 11, the Gilroy Library will have a special film screening of “Scenes of a Crime,” one of the most honored justice documentaries that explores what factors might lead an innocent man to confess to something he didn’t do.

The Gilroy Library will host Senghor 6:30 p.m. Wednesday March 22 as he discusses the issues of “Writing my Wrongs.”

We encourage Morgan Hill Life readers to participate in the 2017 Silicon Valley Reads dialogue with these two books selected for public reading. How we treat people in prisons is an honest indicator of the quality of our community’s character.

“To make progress in our fight against abuse, unequal treatment and wrongful convictions, we must come together as a community to consider the psychological biases that shape the behavior of judges, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, police officers — and all of the rest of us,” Benforado said in a press release issued by Silicon Valley Reads. “Silicon Valley is the perfect place to have this conversation.”