Woman takes own life at Santa Rita Jail; some in custody only get 1 hour a week out of cell

Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Calif. (KTVU FOX 2)

A woman took her own life at Santa Rita Jail last week, the second in-custody suicide this year - a subject of much concern for attorneys who have sued the Alameda County Sheriff over the treatment and mental health of those incarcerated at the facility in Dublin. 

In addition, the subject of lockdowns and lack of free time is becoming a cause of grave concern for those who closely watch the goings-on at the Bay Area's largest jail. Incarcerated people in coronavirus quarantine are only let out of their cells one hour a week. 

"This is shocking to us," Jeffrey Borenstein, a partner with Rosen, Bien, Galvan and Grunfeld, said on Friday during a virtual court hearing before U.S. Magistrate Nathaneal Cousins. "One hour a week ... seems the definition of cruel and unusual punishment even if it is done for medical purposes." 

Bornstein added that having very little human contact and opportunity for recreational activities are likely factors in someone's desire to take their own life. And he implored the magistrate to get this situation addressed immediately. 

Both pieces of information were revealed through court filings as part of a 2018 civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff and the jail. Bornstein's firm and the sheriff's attorneys have been meeting regularly since then in order to improve conditions at Santa Rita and avoid a trial. 

The woman killed herself on April 2.

She had been at the jail since July 2020 and had seen a doctor on April 1, according to court filings. No further information was released.

The Alameda County Coroner on Friday would not identify the woman, saying there had been a "hold" on releasing her name. A spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office only confirmed the deaths and did not elaborate on why there was a block on the release of information. 

Bornstein implored the magistrate to have the sheriff make more information public, and not have the community learn about conditions at the jail only through his firm's lawsuit. 

The woman's suicide follows on the heels of another one on Feb. 9.

That's when Jonas Park, whom his mother described as a drug addict who struggled with mental illness, took his own life.

Records show that Park had been asking for a tablet to communicate with his family, which he did not get for three days.

Records also show Park was being held in coronavirus quarantine, where he received just 30 minutes out of his cell a day. Civil rights attorney Kara Janssen pointed out that this is less time than most incarcerated people get when they are held in the punitive Administrative Segregation section of the jail. 

In fact, according to the latest court filings, attorneys representing Alameda County confirmed that people who are housed in the intake quarantine units "receive approximately 1 hour of out-of-cell time per week."

And they promised to see if they could change that, despite it being more than a year after the coronavirus outbreak.

"Defendants are currently exploring all possible solutions to safely increase out-of-cell time for inmates housed in intake quarantine units while ensuring social distancing precautions are taken," the county's lawyers wrote. 

Samantha Wolff, an attorney representing Alameda County, told the magistrate that it is very difficult to give those in custody more free time as federal and county health guidelines mandate that only one person can be out of the cell at a time. She said that the jail is caught between wanted to provide more recreaction for those incarcerated and science. 

"We're caught between a rock and a hard place," she said.

The subject of free time was also a point of criticism by Mike Brady, an independent contractor hired to inspect the jail as a result of the civil lawsuit.

In his most recent report, Brady said he noticed that "all the pods were locked down" during his housing unit tours in early January.

"This is a concern that has to be examined more closely," he wrote. "This may have been an anomaly, but it is in the best interest of the ACSO for safety and security reasons and the mental health of inmates to maximize out of cell time for inmates whenever it is safe to do so... Locking inmates down unnecessarily has significant negative effects on seriously mentally ill inmates as well as the remainder of the inmate population."

Park was the first suicide in 13 months at Santa Rita and the first in-custody death of the year and jail supervisors have worked hard toward better aiding those with mental distress.

No one committed suicide in all of 2020 at Santa Rita Jail, in large part, attorneys say, because of the drop in jail population due to the coronavirus pandemic as well as having more deputies on hand who have prevented many attempted self-inflicted deaths.

These latest two suicides bring the total number of people killed at Santa Rita Jail to 50 since 2014. That is the highest number of in-custody deaths of any jail in the Bay Area. 

Of the 50 deaths, 19 people have died by suicide in that same time period. 

There were 10 deaths in 2014; eight in 2015; six apiece in 2016 and 2017; five in 2018; 10 in 2019 and three in 2020. 


Man who died by suicide at Santa Rita Jail had been in coronavirus quarantine

Mystery shrouds 1st suicide reported at Santa Rita jail in 13 months

Man, 58, killed by cellmate at Santa Rita Jail; 48th in-custody death since 2014

Death rate at Santa Rita exceeds nation's largest jail system

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

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