DUBLIN, Calif. - The California auditor’s office will closely examine how the Alameda County Sheriff is spending money and running the jails in the wake of the department's high inmate death rate and one instance where a pregnant woman gave birth in an isolation cell - a review that the sheriff said will likely show that his office needs more money to care for an at-risk population of inmates.
Last month, Assembly Member Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) requested the audit citing the Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ “refusal” to open its own audit into the sheriff’s department, despite multiple calls for action from local legislators and inmates’ rights activists.
“Conditions such as overcrowding, poor physical and mental health treatment and mismanagement of funds by Sheriffs’ Departments have become far too frequent in jails across the state,” Kamlager wrote.
Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern was in Sacramento on Thursday speaking to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to answer questions and to present demographic data about crime in the county, according to sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly.
The audit comes nearly five months after KTVU reported that Santa Rita Jail in Dublin has the highest jail death rate of inmate deaths in the region, which followed nearly two years of requests made by the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland.
Activists have repeatedly called on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to issue a full, independent audit of the sheriff's office to bring transparency and accountability.
READ: Death rate at Santa Rita exceeds nation's largest jail system as critics call for reform
"It’s outrageous that the Alameda County Board of Supervisors have ignored the voices of community members that have been speaking out about ACSO human rights abuse for so long; but the intervention by the state is a step toward justice," Ella Baker organizing manager Jose Bernal told KTVU on Thursday. "This action by the state will hopefully shine a light on the corruption of the ACSO and open the door to a full transparent audit of Sheriff Ahern’s department."
The California State Auditor’s Office says the scope of the audit will include examining how much realignment money each county receives and how it’s being spent, specifically looking at areas such as “enforcement, treatment, and jail operations.”
The audit's findings are expected to be released in August, according to Kamlager's office, and those results could help her decide whether to take legislative action to address any issues that may be uncovered.
The audit, which is expected to take six months and $350,000 complete, will also include reviews of the jails in Fresno County and Los Angeles County, which have been the subject of reporting by McClatchy and ProPublica, whose reporters found the number of in-custody deaths doubled in the seven years after the passage of Assembly Bill 109, commonly called realignment, compared to the seven years prior.
Under AB109, the state has sent billions of dollars back to counties to cover the increased cost of housing state inmates in local jails, according to the California State Controller’s Office.
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department stands by all its accounting, according to Kelly.
“We welcome these audits because they tell the truth. It’s times like this that we can step up to the table and open the books and we can say ‘Here’s what we’re doing.’ We welcome that to set the record straight,” he said.
Alameda County receives about $40 million from the state annually under AB109, according to Kelly, and that money is supposed to go back to the sheriff’s office to reimburse the department for the cost of housing inmates serving out state prison sentences in local jails.
However, Kelly says, ACSO only receives about half of that amount because the county Board of Supervisors has mandated that the rest go towards community organizations that support addiction, jobs, and other services for returning citizens.
Alameda County Sheriff’s office received more than $104 million out of the nearly $310 million sent to the county between the start of realignment in 2011 and July 2019, according to state data.
“We can account for every dollar of AB109 funds. We know exactly where it’s going. We’re receiving less than our fair share of those funds,” Kelly said, adding that the department dips into its own budget to cover the difference. He also estimates that ACSO spends about $75,000 per year on incarcerating each individual inmate in custody.
In fact, Kelly has said, an audit will likely show that the sheriff needs more money to care for inmates, especially the mentally ill.
In Alameda County, Board President Richard Valle's spokesman has previously told KTVU that the board would not consider such an audit until a smaller one, called Results First, was conducted and reviewed.
But the state doesn't want to wait.
"If the county is in fact underfunded, and underfunding is a cause of some of the problems in the jail, the audit will show that and the state can take action to remedy the situation," Kamlager said. However, her office adds, ACSO has nearly doubled its funding in the past decade, even with the jail population decreasing after realignment.
On Jan. 13, Kamlager sent a letter to the state’s Join Legislative Audit Committee asking for approval of the audit “in an effort to increase transparency” and examine how sheriff’s departments are spending money allocated for prison realignment under AB109.
She pointed out that although Alameda County’s jail population has dropped by half since AB109 took effect in 2011, Sheriff Greg Ahern’s budget has grown by $144 million in the past decade.
This week, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights sent its own letter to the audit committee expressing their support for an independent state audit, calling it an “appropriate preliminary step” towards transparency and requesting the committee consider smaller audits of “inhumane and horrific jail conditions.”
The Ella Baker Center called out a KTVU report about a woman who was forced to give birth in a jail cell at Santa Rita in 2017, and is now suing the sheriff’s department, as well as other reports that raise concerns over inmate treatment.
Among those conerns,Kamlager specifically cited a KTVU investigation that showed 45 inmates died in Santa Rita jail between 2014 to 2019, making it the jail with the highest death rate in the Bay Area, even higher than the nation’s biggest jail system in Los Angeles County.
“I want to know what is going on our jails. I want to know the reasons for these deaths," Kamlager said. "I fought for the audit because access to full and transparent data is essential to craft legislative solutions that improve conditions in jails and support the health and dignity of people who are incarcerated."
Simone Aponte is an investigative producer for KTVU. Email Simone at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @SimoneAponte