Pay attention to Santa Rita Jail

BAY AREA AFFAIRS: Inmates alleging abhorrent conditions should not be ignored.

Illustration of hands reaching through jail cell
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

When a woman alleges that she gave birth in jail without assistance, it’s time to start paying attention. When nine inmates die at that same jail in a year, it’s really time to start paying attention.

When about 400 inmates go on a hunger strike in the very same jail, it’s definitely time to start paying attention.

At Alameda County Santa Rita Jail — where all of the above can be traced back to — inmates allege that they do not have access to cleaning supplies more than once a week and that jail staff regularly neglect inmates’ mental and medical health.

First of all, Santa Rita Jail is exactly that: a jail, not a prison. And while prisoners deserve decent living conditions too, some people in jail have been convicted of minor crimes, and others haven’t even been convicted yet — a lot of them are simply awaiting trial. It’s an absolute abomination that there are so many horror stories coming out of Santa Rita Jail. Mistreating jail inmates completely erodes the idea of “innocent until proven guilty.” 

But it’s not like people are completely unaware of Santa Rita: There’s been ample coverage by various news outlets, and several legislative entities have called for initiating investigations at the jail. Specifically, Berkeley City Council passed a resolution in June 2018 calling for an audit of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office over its spending, and California state Sen. Nancy Skinner joined those calls in March 2019 after the aforementioned allegations of mistreatment came to light, namely those from the female inmate who gave birth there. 

Yet, here we are at the tail end of 2019, still discussing living conditions at a county jail as if inmates’ lives are pawns in a chess game.

Lack of a budget is apparently not a problem here. According to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, the jail spends $75,000 per inmate. And, rather than internally improve facilities, the county paid out $15.5 million in settlements over a four-year period after several lawsuits alleged misconduct at Santa Rita. For some reason, the sheriff’s office saw an increase in budget, but it doesn’t seem to be reflected in inmate treatment if there’s continued protest. 

It’s time that the Alameda County Auditor-Controller Agency conduct a thorough, serious investigation into the alleged mistreatment of inmates in Santa Rita Jail and bring those people to justice. There have been far too many reports of disturbing incidents to push actual reform to the side.

Until that happens, the community around Santa Rita has to rally with the strikers. We desperately need more oversight and community engagement with conditions in local jails. It’s horrible that this got to the point of a hunger strike, but the demonstration is a classic way for prisoners to draw attention to the conditions in which they live.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2019 opinion editor, Revati Thatte.