By Ceray Seaton
DUBLIN, CALIFORNIA — A number of lawsuits have been filed against Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail concerning the rumored mistreatment of incarcerated people and the facility’s inability to hire trained officers qualified to be employed in their department. The public asks district and federal judges to interfere with the facility’s effort to have professional staff in order to address their safety protocols, and accessible measures taken to service incarcerated people regarding institutional welfare, as well as medical attention and mental healthcare.
Inspections within Santa Rita Jail have found that the facility failed to provide adequate security between the incarcerated and their visitors. As cited in Alameda County’s Grand Jury Final report of 2021-2022, the detention center has frequently allowed individuals inside without checking for legitimate I.D. or searching outside items that were brought in.
Furthermore, a lack of metal detectors and full body X-rays has increased concerns of unauthorized drugs, potential weapons, mobile devices (i.e. cell phones), and non-prescribed medications becoming more easily obtained, as reported by Bay Area reporter Katie Lauer. The report confirms that Santa Rita Jail has had several incidents involving illegal drug distributions to incarcerated people for the purpose of both sale and personal use—including the dispersal of opioids, fentanyl, and methamphetamines. On one count, an East Bay woman was arrested for the possession, smuggling, and sale of fentanyl inside the facility, leading to the overdose death of Lee Esther Anderson (who had been incarcerated at the facility).
The county jail—which detains almost 3,500 people to date—has an established reputation for violating cell and facility conditions. On-site inspections from jury members and health inspectors, as well as multiple statements from inmates, concluded the jail site had dirty cells or housing units, and foul smells circulating inside. Many individuals, namely civil rights attorney Yolanda Huang, wrote a letter stating that on-duty deputies tended to ignore feces or blood smeared along the walls, and failed to pay attention to food thrown on the floors. “These are just a few complaints from inmates asking a federal judge to require health and safety improvements at one of the nation’s largest jails,” Courthouse News reporter Nicholas Iovino noted.
New evidence shows the jail site having pest problems, with rodent and insect droppings throughout the center and inside inmates’ food due to improper storage. “There’s no one to clean-up the cell…leading to an unsanitary accumulation of decaying food, mold in the cell, and the stink of the decay permeating the entire [cell] unit and negatively affecting all the prisoners housed there,” Huang states in her personal investigation. Jonathan Belaga (a private attorney representing Alameda’s sheriff department) and Alameda County health inspectors have confidently denied these claims; Belaga has asserted that “it’s technically impossible to keep 100% of pests out of every kitchen, even ones with solid, concrete walls” and the health inspectors have declared that the kitchen and other commercial stations in the facility were “well-maintained.”
Other advocates have asked Santa Rita jail to resolve a persistent issue in providing mental and medical healthcare. Jurors and public opinion urge the detention center to ensure and give treatment or medication to prisoners that are in desperate need of them.
In one 2021 instance, 33-year-old Jonas Park was one of numerous incarcerated people to die as a result of the Dublin jail’s failure to improve their health programs and aid. “In recent years, treatment of people with mental disabilities and substance abuse incarcerated there — including a practice of locking inmates in isolation for extended periods of time — has drawn public outrage, as well as several lawsuits and federal investigations,” enterprise reporter Maggie Angst states.
A filed federal court lawsuit stated that after arrival, Park experienced severe substance withdrawal but was denied attention and professional help. In fact, staff members instead opted to isolate Park in his cell. Park served time just short of five days before committing suicide in his cell; his death coincided with at least 13 more suicides since 2015. Reviews of the deaths all showed documentation of alerted screenings or additional mental health needs, yet the incarcerated were either assigned inaccurate services or none at all. Another lawsuit filed in 2018 described detainees being harshly disciplined with “cruel and unusual punishment.”
While most allegations made against Santa Rita Jail remain to be fully investigated, the facility has gradually responded to meeting the priorities of incarcerated people and their needs, such as increasing time out of cells, hiring additional mental health and therapeutic staff, and advising frequent sanitation. The community of Alameda County continues to demand that the facility increase the number and validity of medical staff at the site and take extensive measures to prevent suicide or the distress experienced by incarcerated people.
Ceray Seaton is a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and a writer for the Vanguard’s Prison Reform Desk.