Guest Commentary: Another Suicide at Santa Rita Jail Sparks Cry for Sheriff Oversight in Alameda County

By Bob Britton

Bob Britton, an activist with the Interfaith Coalition for Justice in Our Jails part of Faith in Action East Bay and a member of the County Justice Involved Mental Health Task Force. He is a retired union executive who previously represented the Alameda County Deputy Sheriff’s Association and Public Defender Attorneys.

Add another in-custody death to the staggering toll at the Alameda County Jail. Since 2014, 50 people have died at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, the highest death toll of any jail in the Bay Area. On April 2 an incarcerated female took her own life, the second suicide in less than two months. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) refuses to release the name of the deceased woman, why she was in custody or the means she used to take her own life. In Alameda County the Sheriff is also the Coroner. 

This April 2 death would not have been known if not for a filing in a federal civil rights lawsuit, Babu v Ahern. This and other recent deaths have gone unannounced, a cause for concern in the litigation. In an April 9 court hearing plaintiff’s counsel, Kara Janssen, implored the judge to have the Sheriff make more information public and not have the community learn only through court filings. 

ACSO policies require notification to the President of the Board of Supervisors and the Attorney General. Government Code Section 12525 requires the agency to report to the Attorney General all known facts concerning the death. The law declares all such reports public records under the California Public Records Act, excluding confidential medical information. Yet the Sheriff no longer announces such deaths.

Only seven weeks prior on February 9, Jonas Park, died by suicide. This too was not announced by ACSO. It was discovered a week later by an alert reporter reading of it in a criminal court filing. Park died just six days after his arrest. The court record also revealed in Babu v Ahern that those like Park are allowed only one hour per week out of their cell into the adjacent day room or to shower. 

Last June, Donald Nelson died of injuries received from an alleged beating by his temporary cellmate while awaiting booking. ACSO never reported the beating or resultant death. The murder was also only discovered in court filings when the assailant was charged. Nelson was found unconscious in a holding cell in the busy booking area of the jail with his cellmate “repeatedly stomping” his head. He suffered a brain bleed, a broken spine and other serious injuries which led to his death. Nelson was an elderly African American man, his alleged murderer is white.

Donald Nelson, victim of an alleged attack while awaiting booking that left him dead (Source: KTVU,


Howard Blake, alleged assailant in the killing of Donald Nelson (Source: KTVU,

When asked why the brutal beating in the busy front of the jail and subsequent death were not reported, the Sheriff’s spokesperson said it would have been, if only someone had filed a public records request for it. Yes, if only we knew, we could have found out!

Alameda County has good reason to hide the number of in-custody deaths. A report by television station KTVU shows taxpayers paid more in settlements and jury awards for wrongful deaths and excessive force, $27.6 million since 2015 through the end of last year, than any other police agency in the Bay Area. The County paid out nearly five times as much as San Francisco ($2.6 million) and Oakland ($3 million) combined in the same period.

No amount of money can fully compensate for the loss of a loved one. Ask the parents of Christian Madrigal who called 911 for help for their 20-year-old son who had ingested psychedelic mushrooms. They never expected their call to result in his incarceration or death. The video of his arrival at Santa Rita shows a completely passive young man wrapped in a straitjacket with his feet shackled and a mesh hood over his head. He was removed like a sack of potatoes from the back of a patrol car. It was decided to chain his hands and feet to the door of an isolation cell where he hanged himself a short time later with the chains provided. Although mental health professionals are on duty 24/7, not a single one is present in the video. I imagine his family would gladly forgo the $5 million paid by the County for his death if they could have him back home.

The Board of Supervisors takes no authority over the Sheriff yet pays millions to settle such claims. The Board can change that by enacting the provisions of a new state law, AB 1185, that enables counties to establish a sheriff oversight board or an office of inspector general, with subpoena powers. Witnesses can be called to testify under oath and the Sheriff would have to turn over documents.

The Board of Supervisors bears the fiscal responsibility for the Sheriff’s failures, but has a moral responsibility to the incarcerated too, as do we all. 

It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.
― Nelson Mandela

About The Author

The Covid In-Custody Project partners with the Davis Vanguard to report on the pandemic's impact on California's county jails and state prisons. See for more information.

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