The grand jury's report comes on the heels of a separate investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, which last year concluded that the lack of mental health treatment options at the jail violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Such negligence, it found, resulted in needless suffering and death — including 19 reported suicides since 2014.
Alameda County and its sheriff's office, the DOJ report alleges, “engage in a pattern or practice of constitutional violations in the conditions at the Santa Rita Jail.”
And in March of this year, a federal judge placed the jail under court supervision for at least six years after hearing stirring detainee testimony in a class-action lawsuit.
The new grand jury report confirms “that many safety rules are not being followed by the staff and medical providers at the Santa Rita Jail,” said Sanjay Schmidt, a San Francisco-based civil rights lawyer, who represents the family of Jonas Park.
Park was found dead in his cell in February 2021, after allegedly hanging himself — just five days into his detention at the facility.
The lawsuit against Alameda County and the sheriff's office, filed by Park's family earlier this year, alleges that the 33-year-old entered the jail while “actively experiencing opiate withdrawal" and, rather than receiving help, was put in an isolation cell — known as “restrictive” housing. His death, the suit claims, was a result of the jail staff's “deliberate indifference” to Park’s “serious, emergency medical and mental health needs.”
“There appears to be a correlation between the overuse of restrictive housing, the inadequacy of access to outdoor space, and the high rate of suicides in the Santa Rita Jail,” Schmidt said, noting that the jail's suicide rate is significantly higher the average rate in detention centers nationwide.
Schmidt added that the report also emphasizes the importance of cases like the one he's working on, as they are “important vehicles for getting the attention of policymakers in the county, to alert them of the need for reforms to stop needlessly endangering the lives, safety, and welfare of pretrial detainees.”
The civil grand jury, similar to a citizen watchdog group, is made up of a team of 19 people tasked with ensuring that local agencies are acting in the best interest of the public. It's investigation of Santa Rita Jail is part of a much larger report released on Tuesday that scrutinizes multiple institutions within Alameda County, including its mental health system, student homelessness, BART oversight and election integrity.
KQED's Nina Thorsen contributed to this report.