State Senator Proposes Banning Nighttime Releases of Inmates

Jessica St. Louis was found dead four hours after being released from jail. (St. Louis family)

State Sen. Nancy Skinner is planning to introduce legislation that would ban the nighttime release of inmates from county jails across the state.

The move follows the death of Jessica St. Louis, 26, who was released from Santa Rita Jail in Dublin at 1:25 a.m. on July 28 and found dead at the Dublin-Pleasanton BART Station four hours later.

When released, St. Louis had been given a BART ticket. But the closest station is a 40-minute walk from the jail, and BART trains don't operate from that station at that time. St. Louis had been in custody for less than two weeks for theft and other minor crimes.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office says the medical examiner concluded there was no foul play and that St. Louis died of an apparent drug overdose, most likely from opioids. However, toxicology results have not yet been completed. There's been no independent confirmation that St. Louis had a substance abuse problem.

Skinner, who represents Richmond, Berkeley and Oakland, says releasing someone in the middle of the night without any assurance they have transportation, a place to go or substance abuse treatment is a “recipe for disaster.”

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The California State Sheriffs’ Association did not return a request for comment. But Sgt. Ray Kelly, of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, says he expects all sheriffs to oppose a ban on nighttime releases.

According to Kelly, Santa Rita releases thousands of people every year with no problem, but he says officials are eager to discuss the possibility of developing more support services for inmates when exiting the jail.

“If we had some intervention at the release door, we maybe could have saved Jessica,” he says. Skinner says her bill will hopefully include some services upon release.

Kelly says inmates who have addiction problems are at a higher risk of overdose after being released, because they can immediately begin using at the same level as when they entered the system.

Still, Kelly pushes back on the need for a ban: “This case is really one about drugs. It’s not about midnight releases.”

On any given day there are about 2,100 people in custody at Santa Rita Jail, with more than 100 exiting every day, according to Kelly. He says peak release times are 8-10 a.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight, or beyond, depending on workload.

A ban on nighttime releases could hamper management of the jail in an era when the trend is to incarcerate fewer people, says Kelly. But Skinner says the priority is to avoid more deaths like that of Jessica St. Louis.

“What this does is put more responsibility on our jail facilities to process that paperwork during business hours,” says Skinner.

Aside from management issues, the proposed ban could also raise constitutional questions, since inmates have a right to be released at the time determined by the court. However, Skinner says she thinks this could be addressed if release paperwork is completed in the daytime.

St Louis’ death has sparked anger and protest from advocates of incarcerated women. “Jessica’s death was tragic and it was avoidable,” says Jessica Nowlan, executive director of the Young Women's Freedom Center, which is helping to craft the bill with Skinner. Following St. Louis' death, the group held a rally denouncing the young woman’s post-midnight release.

Nowlan says a march is planned for 9 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 19, from Santa Rita Jail to the Dublin-Pleasanton BART Station. It will be done without candles or lights, she says, so that people can experience the long dark walk inmates, like St. Louis, face when released at night.

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