Sheriff seeks $318M more for Santa Rita; expert panel says jail is chronically understaffed

The Alameda County Sheriff is increasing his proposal to fund Santa Rita Jail at a time when its inmate population is at an all-time low and government budgets throughout the county face massive budget deficits because of the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, Sheriff Gregory Ahern was poised to formally ask the board of supervisors for $318 million over the next three years to hire 349 positions for his office and 107 positions from the county's behavioral services agency to help at his correctional facility. 

Ahern had first proposed the idea for more deputies at the end of March. But at that time, he was asking for $85 million a year for the next three years, for a total of $255 million, to hire 260 more deputies. Critics at the time said that it appeared as though this was a "money grab," and the board delayed the vote. Late Tuesday morning, the vote was delayed again. 

Ahern's new request, while more than a month ago, keeps the sheriff's budget portion at about $85 million, while the additional funds would be for more behavioral health care service employees to work at the jail.

Over the last decade, the sheriff’s budget has grown by $144 million. This year, the budget is already just over $440 million.  

Ahern's budget request was modified two days after a panel of third-party experts issued a 237-page report, which found that Santa Rita is chronically understaffed and needs more mental health staff. Experts also found that inmates get more out-of-cell time and better programming.

A closer look at the 45 inmates who have died at Santa Rita Jail 

Santa Rita also has the notorious distinction of having the highest in-custody death rate in the Bay Area, an investigation by this news organization found.  The same investigation also found that at least 80 percent of those who committed suicide at the jails were also were kept in some form of isolation.

In order to alleviate some of the issues, the experts noted that the sheriff should hire 259 deputies and 70 more civilians to "safely operate" the jail.

Ahern couldn't agree more. 

"For many years, the sheriff has expressed to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors the need for additional staff and funding," Sgt. Ray Kelly said in an email Monday. "Many people called for an audit of our budget and we welcomed that audit because it would show and validate what the experts are now saying."

Kelly added: "This budget request will bring us in line with the expert recommendations and provide more comprehensive services to inmates with mental and behavioral health issues."

He said the vacant positions are deputies who have been not working due to long-term injury and illness.

"We can’t hire behind those people because we still pay their salary and benefits," Kelly said. "Industry-wide, 10% of most police agencies have this same issue. We are also not authorized to hire behind injury vacancies. "

Death rate at Santa Rita exceeds nation's largest jail system as critics call for reform

The report is a result of a federal class-action lawsuit filed in 2018, where plaintiffs Ashok Babu et al. sued Alameda County and the Sheriff's Office over their mental health care. Plaintiffs are being represented by Kara Janssen and Jeff Bornstein of the San Francisco firm, Rosen, Bien, Galvan and Grunfeld. 

In order to avoid a trial, both sides have been meeting regularly to make changes at the jail to improve the mental health care of inmates. The county has already agreed in concept to address several of the issues, including providing 24/7 mental health staffing at the jail and giving inmates more out-of-cell time and programming, the experts noted. 

The panel of experts who wrote the report are: Dr. James Austin, an expert in correctional planning and sociology; Dr. Kerry Hughes, a mental health and suicide prevention expert; Terri McDonald, an expert in restrictive housing;  and Michael Brady and Rick Wells from Sabot Consulting, experts in disability access and custody staffing.

What the panel did not really take into account, though, are two major factors directly linked to the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Cities, counties and states are facing massive deficits because of the shut-down economy and future spending by any government entity spending faces major challenges. 
  • The jail is at historic lows because inmates have been released early so as not to overcrowd facilities and spread the disease. Santa Rita has released nearly 850 inmates since March 1, and its inmate population on Monday was 1,746, down from 2,597. 

"I'm not sure where the sheriff thinks that money is going to come from," said Jose Bernal, senior organizer of the Ella Baker Center and a vocal critic of the sheriff. 

None of the board of supervisors responded for comment on Monday.

Last month, board president Richard Valle said he would visit the jail and think about the request, but he never reported out his opinions to KTVU. He did not respond again for comment on Monday. 

Critics agreed with many of the shortcomings the experts noted in their report, but they disagreed with the notion that taxpayers should be paying for more deputies.

Instead, they argued, money should be spent on community-based mental health care and that many people with mental health issues shouldn't be in jail in the first place. 

John Lindsay Poland, a member of the American Friends Service Committee, pointed out that the sheriff's department already has 150 deputy vacancies. And he questioned why and how the sheriff thinks he could fill these positions now.

He also pointed to a line in the report that stresses the analysis is not a comprehensive staffing analysis and a further one should be conducted once the suit settles. 

And finally, Lindsay Poland noted that the report never addressed one of the biggest concerns at the jail: Why 45 people have died in custody since 2014. 

"There isn't any reflection about their policies and if anything needs to be done differently there," he said. "The sheriff is asking for a lot of money, but there is no indication the department is looking inward." 


The expert panel analyzed 53,000 pages of documents, along with video recordings of use-of-force incidents at the jail. The experts spent two days at jail, conducting the bulk of their work before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among their findings: 

  • The jail does "not have nearly enough custody staff to properly operate the jail. " Staff shortages impair safety checks, out-of-cell time and access to programs. A review of logs showed inmates were not let out for showers and other activities. Routine refusals of inmates to utilize the yard and dayroom does not absolve a correctional system of its responsibility to try to mitigate well-documented damage associated with inmates isolated in their cells, particularly those who require mental health services." 
  • The jail does not have enough mental health staff or enough access to higher levels of mental health care. Experts noted that "inmates in crisis are often cycled through John George Psychiatric Hospital within 24 hours and return to jail without being stabilized." 
  • The jail's classification system is outdated and should be replaced to "reduce the use of restrictive housing." 
  • Clinical personnel was not routinely called to assist with compliance prior to using force. Inmates in apparent need of mental health housing were languishing in the intake area for too long while awaiting evaluation and housing. 
  • Security checks have missing entries and don't list specific times, "raising questions about their accuracy." 
  • In general, the jail "appears to be over-reliant on segregation... and administrative separation." 
  • While use-of-force reports were "well written," a review found "insufficient critical analysis of tactical decisions." In more than half the cases in 2018, staff reported striking or kneeing inmates. "This is an unusually high percentage of use of hands and knees as weapons when physical strengths and holds generally may be more appropriate." There were a variety of reports where staff appeared to justify striking inmates in the face when they feared they might be spit on, "which should have been questioned and addressed in a meaningful use-of-force review." 
  • An expert noted that the cause of suicides is not closely examined.  "For example, of all the suicide reviews provided, all determined to be within policy. However, on virtually all paper reviews, it appears that opportunities for system improvements would have been identified with more thorough reviews." 

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