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Marchers protest inmate deaths at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin

Marchers protest inmate deaths at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin
Marchers protest inmate deaths at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin 03:26

DUBLIN -- From mass shootings to homelessness, the nation is struggling under a wave of mental illness. Advocates say more needs to be done and, in Alameda County, much of the focus is on what's happening at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. So many people in custody have died there that it is now under federal oversight and families dealing with mental illness say it is the last place their loved ones should be sent.

"Because a person is sick ... that doesn't mean that they should receive a death sentence and that's what's happening here. There's something going on wrong here," said Norma Nelson who, after three years, is still grieving the loss of her brother Donald. In 2020, he suffered a diabetic seizure, got into a fight and was killed in a cell just two hours after arriving at Santa Rita Jail.

"This particular jail, there have been too many lives that have been lost here," Nelson said. "People who are in need of medical, mental health care, behavioral health care -- they're just not getting it here."

In fact, since 2014 more than 66 people have died while serving time in the jail -- four in just the first two months of 2023.

On Saturday, a group of mental health and social justice activists staged a rally and march outside the facility to demand that the county investigate its operation and spend the $50 million they say they were promised to provide alternative mental illness intervention programs.

"We're saying 'provide more hospitals, have more in-treatment services,'" said Kimberly Graves with the Care First Community Coalition. "That will itself help the community to help those that are suffering to get well so that we don't need to have the police interaction or take them to Santa Rita."

The protesters also called on newly elected sheriff Yesenia Sanchez to end the practice of arresting and incarcerating people with mental health and substance abuse needs. Sheriff's department spokesperson, Lt. Tya Modeste said deputies arrest people for committing crimes not for being mentally ill.

"If you just look at communities across the nation, there has been an extreme boom of mental health deterioration," said Lt. Modeste. "We would love to see programming available that would really take that component out of our hands."

Lt. Modeste said there have been changes at the jail. Mental health orientation is being given to arrestees upon arrival rather than just on release, as was the policy before. And a partnering mental health provider has a trailer set up out in the parking lot to help people leaving custody connect to services.

Modeste said it is part of the reforms that Sheriff Sanchez promised during the election. Protestors are taking a wait-and-see attitude -- especially since Sanchez oversaw the jail operation before running for sheriff.

"So, she knows what's going on here," Nelson said. "If anything, she should be held more accountable to make sure that she actually follows through on some of the campaign promises she made."

Some of the in-custody deaths are being attributed to the deadly fentanyl epidemic. The sheriff's office said they have increased security measures to try to keep the drug out of the jail but people are finding ways to smuggle it to the inmates. Nevertheless, both the protesters and law enforcement agree that, no matter what happens at the jail, a lot more money is needed for mental illness treatment and facilities and it will ultimately be up to the Alameda County board of supervisors to find it.

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