What’s Up with Our Jails?

By Jeanne Finberg and Richard Speiglman

Holding Alameda County’s Sheriff Accountable — Report and Rally

In a rousing rally and demonstration on Oct 2, 2018, Jose Bernal from the Ella Baker Center emceed an event in front of the Glenn Dyer Detention Facility on 6th Street in Oakland, decrying the harsh conditions and human rights violations rampant in the Alameda County Jails. An Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) report, authored by the OCO Live Free committee (chaired by Kehilla Economic Justice Committee member Richard Speiglman), entitled “What’s Up with Our Jails, Holding Alameda County’s Sheriff Accountable,“ was distributed at the rally. The report detailed key serious and ongoing problems in the Dyer Detention Facility, as well as the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, both managed and operated by Sheriff Ahern, here in Alameda County. A diverse crowd of approximately seventy-five people, including a number of Kehilla members, listened to speakers including Amber Piatt from the Public Health Justice Coalition and Jean Moses, OCO, who presented some of the chilling facts revealed in the report.

Only 18% of the 2,598 people held in our jails in early 2018 were actually serving sentences. Many are being held—sometimes for years– just because they are too poor to post bail. While in jail, inmates are denied critical medical attention, clean clothes and reasonable visitation with family and community members. Many inmates are put in isolation, including women during child birth. Inmates complain of unsanitary conditions and poor food; women are denied tampons and often even sanitary napkins. Yolanda Huang, one of several attorneys who have filed lawsuits challenging some of these, and other, abominable conditions, spoke at the rally about her case on behalf of pregnant women. She said the sheriff denied engaging in any sex discrimination, because men and women were treated exactly the same. Men didn’t get any tampons either!

Other speakers described some of the most horrific incidents at the jail. Barbara Doss, whose young son Dujuan Armstrong died of unexplained injuries in the jail, described being kept in the dark for more than a day after her son’s death. As a first offender, Dujuan was detained only on week-ends, allowing him to keep working during the week. When he did not return home on the Sunday of one of his very last scheduled week-ends of a 30-day sentence, she called the jail, only to be told that they could tell her nothing, because their computers were down. At that point, he’d already been dead for 24 hours! Dujuan’s head was completely bashed in, his mother reported, but the Sheriff could not or did not explain what had happened to him. Other people spoke of detainees being released from jail in the middle of the night with only a $5 BART card, sometimes even in jail garb. Leo Mercer and several other Young African-American men from the Urban Peace Movement spoke and rapped to the crowd about the respect they deserved from the community and the sheriff. Cinthya Morfin of East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy related the problems at the jail to other problems of people of color in the community and to EBASE’s work to Ban the Box. The Alameda County jail population is primarily people of color: More than 50% African-American, 20% Latino and less than 20% white. Micky Duxbury and the Rev. Mary Foran, representing the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, also participated in the rally. Rev. Foran led a prayer for those inside the jail and outside in the community.

After the rally, protesters carried 34 body bags representing unexplained and unnecessary deaths of people in custody since 2013 to the County Administration building and presented the Board of Supervisors with copies of the report. Jose Bernal kept the crowd chanting along the three-quarter mile route. Others passed out flyers and copies of the report to the crowd. The OCO Live Free Committee, Ella Baker Center and the Kehilla Economic Justice Committee – among a large number of activated community groups – will be working on changing some of the twenty-three problems identified in the report. Solutions include a full audit of the Sheriff’s Office, creating an independent jails’ governing board, improving food and hygiene services, curtailing isolation, allowing more contact and communication with family and community, providing better translation services, ensuring better medical care and pregnancy related services, and adopting better release and reentry services.

A critical need involves a series of changes to jail program, policy, and practice so that when detainees re-enter the community they do so with required resources, including coursework and program participation in-custody (when relevant and desired); reinstatement of Medi-Cal if lost; supply of vital medications; and connections to community-based housing, job training and placement, treatment, and other service providers. Please contact Richard Speiglman rspeiglman@sbcglobal.net or any member of the EJC if you have any helpful information or would like to join in these advocacy efforts. The full report can be found at: oaklandcommunity.org/OurJails. Hard copies can be obtained from the literature wall inside Kehilla’s front door or from Richard.

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