Deaths and Neglect Behind Bars Magnify Oakland’s Sheriff Race

Published by Oakland Rising Action on

Challengers and organizers have blamed Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern for deaths and dangerous conditions that have occurred on his watch at the local California jail.

By Piper French, published on April 29 2022 on

Maurice Monk, who died inside Alameda County’s notorious Santa Rita Jail last year on November 15, was there because he had threatened a bus driver who told him to put his mask on—and because his family could not afford the $2,500 necessary for his bail. He was 45 years old, the father of two teenage children, and the brother of two sisters, Tiffany and Elvira. He suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and nine days before his death—because he was in jail—he had missed a shot of antipsychotic medication he’d been receiving regularly for years.

Elvira was a fierce advocate for Maurice, managing his medication and doctors appointments. When he was sent to Santa Rita, she tried over and over to get his prescription information to the jail, terrified of him missing a dose. There were a series of bureaucratic hoops to jump through: obtaining permission to send the information directly rather than wait for Kaiser to do it; a series of emails that went nowhere. Elvira kept calling. Finally, the jail gave her a fax number. Elvira felt relieved, but shortly thereafter, she heard a knock at the door. When she opened it, sheriff’s deputies were standing there.

“They told me that my brother was deceased,” Elvira recalled. The deputies had nothing else for her: no paperwork, no proof of his death, nothing about how or why her brother had died. “They just said, ‘Maurice Monk passed away.’” Maurice had died the day before—he had been dead while his sister was scrambling to get him his prescription. “The day that he died, they could have came and told me that day,” Elvira told Bolts. 

Cases like Maurice’s are not an anomaly at Santa Rita Jail. Gregory Ahern’s 15-year tenure as the sheriff-coroner of Alameda County—a populous East Bay county that is home to Oakland and Berkeley—has seen a string of deaths at the lockup, leaving grieving families struggling to accept the loss of their loved ones behind bars. Fifty-eight people have died in custody there since 2014, making Santa Rita the deadliest jail in Northern California. Repeated allegations of neglect for incarcerated people with mental health needs led to a federal class action lawsuit, Babu v. Ahern, that recently ended in a massive settlement requiring officials to overhaul mental health care and suicide prevention at jail. Under the settlement, the Santa Rita Jail will now be under court oversight for at least the next six years.

Ahern is now seeking a fifth term, and somehow this is the first cycle he has faced challengers: he initially ran unopposed in 2006 and became sheriff by default. Mental health care and solitary confinement at Santa Rita have emerged as key issues of the race given years of deaths and legal challenges tied to lax treatment at the jail. Both of Ahern’s opponents as well as many organizers in the community blame the sheriff, who has presided over the lockup for years, for the deaths and dangerous conditions that have occurred on his watch.

Yesenia Sanchez, one of the candidates running against Ahern, became the division commander in charge of Santa Rita Jail just after the pandemic started. She is now in the tricky position of both criticizing the status quo and defending her own record at a time when local activists say conditions have not improved at the lockup.

The other candidate in the race is San Francisco Police Department veteran JoAnn Walker, who has focused on preventing jail deaths, reducing solitary confinement, and improving mental health care for incarcerated people as core campaign issues.

The three candidates will share one ballot in a nonpartisan June 7 primary, and if no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two contenders will face off in November.

Whoever wins will be responsible for implementing the consent decree, which has been heralded as a liberal victory by the San Francisco law firm that litigated it, but bitterly opposed by much of Oakland’s activist community, as well as a number of people currently incarcerated at Santa Rita. Critics of the settlement say it only gives more money and power to the sheriff’s department. The problems with Santa Rita, they say, run too deep to be fixed by more funding, more staff, or a new sheriff—they can only be adequately addressed by removing the jail from the equation entirely. “The county should be focusing its energy into looking at preventative resources and alternatives to incarceration, so that folks don’t end up in jail to begin with,” said Jose Bernal, the organizing director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

A recent investigation of Santa Rita by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that poor treatment of incarcerated people with mental illness there violated the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Clinicians often provide seriously mentally ill prisoners nothing more than handouts that list coping skills or describe deep breathing techniques that may help reduce stress,” the investigation observes. In 2021, a state audit found that there was inadequate information sharing between mental health providers and Santa Rita jail staff regarding the mental health status and needs of incarcerated people, and that jail staff neglected to screen everyone coming into the jail for mental health issues.

Moreover, in-custody deaths at Santa Rita have cost Alameda County millions of dollars in the form of payouts for the families of the deceased, including the largest wrongful death payout in a civil rights case in California history.

Up for re-election and under increased scrutiny, Ahern recently noted at a candidate forum that his department was using the recent audit as a guide to help reduce the number of people in isolation and overall jail deaths. Why had it taken 15 years, a DOJ investigation, multiple lawsuits, and a federal consent decree to make changes at the jail? Ahern told Bolts he has tried to make reforms in the past but lacked necessary funding from the county’s board of supervisors, which controls the purse strings for the sheriff’s department.

“We were doing the best that we could,” Ahern said.

In 2020, Ahern asked for and received a $318 million expansion despite the county’s budget crisis. Activists in the community are highly skeptical that lack of funding is the root of problems at the jail. “It’s a ridiculous statement for him to say that he doesn’t have enough funding when the rest of county services are continuing to suffer because of the bloated budget that the sheriff’s department has,” liz suk, the executive director of Oakland Rising Action, told Bolts. 

suk also criticized Sanchez’s more recent tenure as division commander in charge of the jail. “We have continued to see high rates of COVID infection happening at Santa Rita,” she said, observing that jail deaths have also continued to occur under Sanchez.

Sanchez, for her part, blamed Ahern for why more hasn’t changed at Santa Rita during her tenure, saying that she had brought up ideas for reforms that seemed to go nowhere, including changes to how the jail manages in-custody deaths and a better on-site presence for Root & Rebound, a community organization that provides post-release support for incarcerated people and currently occupies a trailer in the jail’s parking lot. “You would think that being a division commander, I would have ultimate say on anything that goes on at the jail, but it’s just not the structure,” Sanchez said. “It’s definitely a paramilitary kind of organization.” 

JoAnn Walker has the benefit of being the outsider candidate—at least as much as anyone can be under California’s sheriff candidate requirements, which since 1989 have required a law enforcement background. “I have not heard either of the candidates take responsibility for what is going on at Santa Rita Jail,” Walker told Bolts. “They’ve been in power now for many, many years.”

Walker, who has a background in telephone crisis counseling and has trained others in de-escalation and crisis support, says unequivocally that “the jail is not the place for anyone who is suffering from a mental illness to heal.” She supports the county board of supervisor’s “Care First Jails Last” resolution, which aims to decouple mental health care from incarceration.

Walker has received endorsements from some local progressive groups, including Our Revolution. But suk and Bernal both told Bolts that their organizations are staying away from the sheriff’s race. “We’re focused on reducing the overall power and size of the sheriff’s office so that no matter who’s in that office, they don’t have the same reach and power as their predecessor,” Bernal told Bolts.

The first hurdle for a person with mental health needs arriving at Santa Rita is the intake process. Ahern claimed that he has improved how the jail conducts mental health screenings, adding more nursing staff and addressing mental health during the intake process. “In many instances, we have a very positive environment for people that have suffered a mental health crisis,” Ahern said. “In many cases,” he added, “we are providing treatment and care for those individuals that they would not be receiving otherwise.”

Santa Rita has a ‘behavioral health unit’ where people with mental health needs are sent. There, Ahern said, incarcerated people with mental health needs are provided medication that “they may or may not have been utilizing correctly while they’re out on the street.”

The sheriff’s characterization ignores the barriers Elvira Monk experienced trying to get her brother’s prescription transferred to Santa Rita last year. “There needs to be a better way for the family to be able to get medical records up there,” she said. Maurice Monk was one of three people who died while being held in the jail’s behavioral health unit within a single month in 2021.

Walker criticized the current intake process, saying that newcomers to Santa Rita determined to have mental health needs shouldn’t be sent to the behavioral health unit—in fact, they shouldn’t be in jail at all. “If it is a yes for any of the mental health questions that are asked [on the intake form], then that person must be transported to a hospital so their medical needs can be assessed,” she said. When asked if she believed that the behavioral health unit could not adequately meet the needs of people with mental health issues, Walker answered with a question: “Well, does it work? And if it is working, why have we had [58] people who have died since 2014?”

Jose Bernal has personally experienced the toll that incarceration can take on a person’s mind and spirit. “Jail exasperates people’s mental health conditions,” he told me. “It is not and will never be a viable, legitimate place for mental health.” Solitary confinement, in particular, can be a uniquely damaging experience for someone with a history of mental illness—but it is paradoxically often used as a tool to manage incarcerated people experiencing mental health crises.

The Department of Justice investigation found that people with “serious mental illness” are regularly placed in isolation inside the jail, which has led to outcomes such as “prisoners swallowing objects, not eating, smearing or eating feces, banging their heads against the wall, and attempting or completing suicide.” When asked if the jail puts people diagnosed with mental health conditions in isolation, Ahern demurred, saying “based on each individual’s jail classification, we monitor where they can be housed.” He also quibbled over the language used to describe isolation conditions—the jail, Ahern says, doesn’t practice solitary confinement but rather “administrative separation.” Although people in “ad-sep” are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, that shouldn’t be considered solitary, the sheriff argued, because “there are six pods to a housing unit, and they have access to communicate with everyone in their pod.”

Ahern also called it “inflammatory, if not insulting” to say that jail deaths have been high on his watch.  

Both Ahern and Sanchez told Bolts that they are working to reduce the number of people in solitary conditions and that the current count of people in “administrative separation” has decreased significantly; on April 8, Sanchez said the number was at 57. Walker says that number is still an indication that the jail’s current mental health care services are not working. Walker committed to working towards fully ending the practice of “administrative separation” at Santa Rita. “We have got to bring in our community-based organizations and let them take the lead on dealing with mental health issues because that is their specialty,” she said.

Elvira Monk says that she continues to deal with problems at Santa Rita jail. She says communication from the sheriff’s department about her brother’s death has been sporadic and incomplete; in late April, more than five months after her brother died, officials sent her a death certificate that labeled his death “natural” and blamed heart disease. “They keep giving me the runaround,” Elvira said. Her experience struggling to find answers, too, is not unique: other families have detailed similarly maddening experiences trying to get more information about what happened to their loved one inside Santa Rita Jail.

Sanchez said the office should better communicate with family members of people who die in jail as well as the public when tragedies occur. The fact that we don’t give the family of those who lose loved ones incarcerated any information at all—it’s definitely not the way to treat family” she said. “It’s not humane in my eyes.”

In-custody deaths at Santa Rita also highlights the issue that, like many counties in California, the sheriff of Alameda doubles as its coroner—which raises questions about the thoroughness and independence of inquiries into deaths in custody.  “While it’s true that the sheriff isn’t personally conducting the autopsy, the person that is is reporting directly to the sheriff,” said Bernal. “There’s a clear conflict of interest.” State law doesn’t require independent autopsies for people who die in law enforcement custody.

Ahern rejects the idea of separating the coroner’s duties from the sheriff’s department. Walker said she would be open to separating the two if it’s “something that people want,” and Sanchez said she needed to look into the issue more but did support independent autopsies in cases of in-custody deaths.

Elvira still finds herself struggling to accept her brother’s loss. For a while after Maurice passed, she says she was consumed by trying to find answers for his sudden absence. “It was like: I want to know why. I want to know why. I want to know why.

In death as in life, Elvira has continued to act as her brother’s champion, reaching out to other families who’ve lost loved ones at Santa Rita, working to organize a candlelight vigil, and continuing to contact the jail, demanding updates. “It was no reason why he shouldn’t have got that next medication,” she said.

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