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Grand Jury: Major Health and Safety Violations at Santa Rita Jail Require 'Urgent Attention'

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A blue door framed by a fence with a sign at the top saying "Alameda County Sheriff's Office"
The intake, transfer and release area at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, on Aug. 4, 2016. (Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Serious safety violations, inadequate medical services and poor sanitation are among a host of critical issues plaguing Santa Rita Jail, Alameda County's notorious lockup.

That's according to a civil grand jury investigation of the long-troubled Dublin-based jail, the county's main adult detention facility. The report, released Tuesday, details a litany of major problems at the jail that have resulted in unsafe conditions for its detainees and staff, and spurred a “multiple-year pattern of lawsuits concerning conditions.”

“The concerns identified in this report represent material health, safety, and financial risks and as such warrant urgent attention,” the 35-page report states.

In 2021 alone, it notes, there were seven in-custody deaths at the jail along with an "unprecedented" spike in COVID-19 cases, with some 20% of detainees testing positive at the peak of the January surge.

“When a detainee enters custody at Santa Rita, Alameda County assumes responsibility for that detainee’s health and well-being,” the report asserts. “That responsibility is a legal duty and persists regardless of the emotional or mental state of the detainee, the offense with which they are charged, budget pressures within the county, or even the presence of a global pandemic.”

Among its wide-ranging findings, the report calls attention to inadequate access to outdoor spaces and describes a confusing and ineffective process for detainees to report grievances. It also underscores, in graphic terms, the jail's excessively dirty cells — especially those used for temporary occupancy.

“The presence of feces smeared on walls and foul odors in several cells described as being available for immediate occupancy suggests to the Grand Jury a systemic issue with the quality of cleaning and sanitation of temporary occupancy cells,” the report describes.


The investigation additionally identifies lackluster security procedures at the facility that often fail to block visitors and employees from smuggling in contraband, especially drugs — an issue its staff views “as perhaps the most serious and persistent challenge faced by the jail.”

The grand jurors reported that during their 13 inspection visits, they were asked for credentials only once and were never made to go through a metal detector or undergo a bag search.

Accounts of such lax oversight track with the jail's recent history of overdose deaths and smuggling scandals. In July 2020, an Alameda County Sheriff's technician was charged with 10 felonies for allegedly smuggling methamphetamine and a cellphone to an inmate awaiting trial for murder. The following month, a female detainee died from an overdose of fentanyl that had been smuggled in from an outside dealer.

Around the same time, the jail's medical director was fired for writing fake prescriptions to obtain opioid pain medications.

Operated by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, Santa Rita Jail is among the largest detention facilities in the country. As of February 2022, the 33-year-old facility held roughly 2,260 male and female detainees — about 65% of its total capacity. Nearly two-thirds of its population have not been convicted of crimes, and are awaiting adjudication.

The grand jury, whose investigation included extensive interviews and reviews of thousands of pages of records, makes nearly 30 recommendations for improving conditions at the facility. Among them: regular safety inspections, tighter security at entry points, an updated and more responsive grievance process for detainees, increased access to outdoor areas and stricter enforcement of COVID-19 safety protocols.

The sheriff's office, which has 90 days to respond to the report, declined this week to comment on the findings, saying it was still reviewing them.

“While some of the information related to the Santa Rita Jail has been public for some time, we will obviously need time to review the comments in their entirety before an informed statement can be made,” Tya M. Modeste, a spokesperson for the sheriff's office, said in an email.

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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. 


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