Is Alameda County's new sheriff fulfilling campaign promise of 'transformational change'?

Yesenia Sanchez campaigned to be Alameda County's next sheriff promising a "transformational change" when she took helm, working to rehabilitate those held in the county jail and holding her office accountable to the public. 

A little more than eight months into taking over from longtime Sheriff Greg Ahern, Sanchez said she's proud of her team and they're all working to turn her promises into concrete reality.

In a wide-ranging interview at Santa Rita Jail recently, Sanchez sat down with KTVU to talk about her successes so far, her challenges and her goals for the near and long term future. 

She also addressed criticism that Santa Rita Jail has a notoriously high in-custody death rate, that incarcerated people complain they don't get the proper medical care and that she's trying to make her department more transparent and accountable. 

And in typical fashion, Sanchez gave credit for the positive changes to those who work for her. 

"I'm most encouraged by the work and the ideas that are coming forth from our staff," she said. "So honestly, I'm most proud of our folks, of our people."

Jail opponents agree that Sanchez is doing better than the past administration but that there's a very long way to go. And they say it's too soon to know if she's made good on her campaign vows of transformational change. 

"It's hard to evaluate," said Richard Speiglman, chair of the Interfaith Coalition for Justice in our Jails. "There's a dearth of data. I'm hopeful. But it's early. I really don't know."

Spieglman's main desire is for the sheriff's office to establish a portal where the public could easily learn about in-custody deaths, how many deputies are working overtime, how many positions need to be filled at the office, and other logistical information.

Sanchez said she's working on that, hopefully to be established by January, and a host of other ideas. 

Some of those ideas are already becoming realities. 

They include: 

  • Deputies now use a new type of key card technology to enter and exit cells in the hopes of preventing falsifying logs – two deputies are now facing criminal charges that they did this in connection to a suicide in the jail two years ago.
  • Cells have been "softened" to curb the high number of suicides in jail. Toilets have been rounded, gaps in the floor have been closed.
  • The public and families are alerted much more quickly when there is an in-custody death.
  • Various groups, including formerly incarcerated people and jail reform activists, have been invited in to offer suggestions.
  • And one of the biggest changes of all is a new "reception center" at the moment of intake, so that recently arrested people can shower, eat and make phone calls instead of being held en masse in a large room.

A "reception center" at intake was created at Santa Rita Jail in April 2023. 

It's in this reception area, which opened in April, that people are immediately offered "re-entry services," such as information about medical care, housing and jobs, for example. This is a new concept conceived after talking with employees and jail reform activists, Sanchez said. 

"When they first come in at their most fragile state, we've recognized that and addressed it in a way where they spend less time in our intake area, where they're waiting for someone to connect with them," Sanchez said. 

Not only are people offered medical oversight, they're also given bedding and a toothbrush.

"So, more eyes we have on people, the less likely they'll be able to kind of either fall through the cracks or not be able to be seen if they're in distress," she said. 

Use-of-force incidents in the intake area have dropped by half, she said. Data provided by the sheriff shows there were 36 use-of-force instances from May to July in 2022 in the old intake area, compared to 18 use-of-force cases during the same three months this year in the new reception area. 

In addition, there are positive, albeit non-tangible, effects of the new room.

Sgt. Daniel Murphy said that the stress level of both deputies and incarcerated people has decreased with the new center, where people are gearing up to leave and re-enter society from the moment they arrive. 

Sanchez said she has also made immediate changes that might seem very small, but in fact, are very meaningful.

When Sanchez took over in January, there was a rule that cough drops weren't allowed to be dispensed. She was simply told, "No, we don't do that."

So, she changed that right away. 

"Well, let's offer cough drops," she recalled thinking. "So just things like that. I mean, that's relatively small, but we started having those conversations, and those conversations will continue to go onward."

Yesenia Sanchez became the Alameda County Sheriff in January 2023. 

High-tech key card system installed

Another idea that's been implemented since March has been the installation of Guardian RFID technology. 

Essentially, these are high-tech key cards that deputies now use to swipe by a door to prove that they checked on someone in their cell and let them out for pod time. This idea was largely inspired by a federal consent decree mandating reforms at the jail. 

The falsification of logs became a criminal issue earlier this year when District Attorney Pamela Price charged two deputies for pretending to check in a woman who died by suicide in 2021, when they allegedly did not. The deputies have pleaded not guilty.

Deputy Dean White explained on the tour, this system makes lying much harder and if the technology is aligned with body-worn cameras, a deputy's real-time action would be able to proven.

"It's 100% logged," White said. "So it actually tracks me when I go to each cell."

Checking on people every 30 0r 60 minutes can sometimes mean life or death. 

"So when a deputy goes to the door, they're looking for signs of life," White said. "We look inside and we look if they're sitting up. That's an obvious sign of life. If they're sleeping, we're looking for a rise of the chest. Sometimes people will look at their foot. And then after having a visual observation on somebody, we scan the door and then move to the next cell."

White said the new key cards has made his life easier because the technology will sound an alarm if he's close to missing a cell check and he can ask for help. 

Critics, however, noted at this point, this technology is not generating reports and it's pretty hard for outside auditors to check what's really happening. 

Guardian RFID devices were installed at Santa Rita Jail in March 2023. 

New sheriff is doing better, but bar was low

Kara Janssen, senior counsel at Rosen, Bien, Galvan and Grunfeld in San Francisco – a law firm with limited oversight over Santa Rita Jail –  said that she believes Sanchez is making positive changes.

"I think it is a good shift from the prior administration," she said. "Under Sheriff Ahern, the jails were 100% failing. I think [Sheriff Sanchez] is making significant changes. So at this stage, I guess I would give her like a B." 

For example, Janssen noted that the reception area is the "nicest part of the jail" – the only area that KTVU was allowed to tour. 

And Janssen also said that people with serious mental health issues are not able to access that area. Currently, only general population inmates are welcome into the reception room, "not folks who've been identified as going into the therapeutic housing units." 

While there are plans to expand the reception area, Janssen said this is just an "example of a larger issue where people with behavioral issues not benefiting from some of these positive changes at the jail." 

In addition, Janssen said that people who live in restrictive housing, including Housing Unit 1, are still only getting out of their cells for an hour or so a day, which was the situation when her firm sued the jail in 2018. 

And while Sanchez is touting the services provided at the reception area, Janssen countered that there is a "serious lack of mental health staff" at the jail – in fact, the behavioral health staff vacancy rate is in the 60% to 70% range. 

"That impacts everything else because they cannot provide the mental health care our clients need with that low amount of staff. That's the biggest problem," Janssen said. 

Alameda County sheriff's deputies walk alongside incarcerated men at Santa Rita Jail. Aug. 22, 2023 

In-custody deaths, mental illness and jail 

Sanchez would agree that taking Santa Rita Jail, which was built to be a "lockup" facility and take it into a more "therapeutic environment," is her biggest task. Especially since that was not a focus, she said, of the prior administration. 

"So that's been one of our biggest challenges," she said. "But also one of the best foots forward that we've put out as far as a different way of doing things."  

Providing medical and mental health care up front will hopefully address some of the in-custody deaths, she said, which are now at 67 since 2014.

Five people died in custody since January, the month Sanchez took office. And a total of 22 people died since 2020, when Sanchez was commander of the jails. 

Most of the deaths have been suicides, overdoses and medical issues. 

Alameda County contracts with a company called Wellpath to provide health services. Wellpath is facing dozens of wrongful death lawsuits where patients and families allege the company has been negligent; a claim the company denies. 

"Well, you know, this is where it's my responsibility to make sure that we're keeping our service providers accountable," Sanchez said. "So any time we have an issue that pops up, we do reviews and we do touch base with our providers to make sure that they're following what they're contractually obligated to."

The Sheriff's Office is retrofitting cells with smaller desk/stool combinations and sink/toilet combinations. Photo: Alameda County Sheriff

Sanchez said she is also making physical changes to the jail by "softening the cells," subbing in rounded toilets and sinks, and closing gaps in surfaces to that people have nowhere to "tie off" and die by suicide. 

Windows on cell doors are also being widened in the "special management units" to add more natural light and to provide a better view for deputies conducting observation checks, the sheriff said.

Staff has also started painting accent walls in the cells of behavioral health units for a "softer/therapeutic and less sterile look," the sheriff's office said. 

"Do I believe that our severely mentally ill should be housed here? No," Sanchez said.

She added that when people do commit crimes, they need to go to jail, but it's her job to " make sure that we are able to provide services that do for people who do find themselves here."

To do that, Sanchez said the jail has to provide "intensive care to people who do find themselves incarcerated, stabilize them as much as we can, and then [help them] find a treatment center that they can go to outside of here." 

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez.