Woman who complained of roaches, bird droppings at Santa Rita Jail dies of possible drug overdose

FILE ART - Santa Rita Jail. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: The National Lawyers Guild wrote the Alameda County Board of Supervisors on May 28, 2021, identifying the woman as Lee Esther Anderson. See full letter below. 


A woman who had written a blog complaining of conditions at Santa Rita Jail has died in custody, possibly of a drug overdose; she marks the third death at the Dublin facility this year and the 51st person to die there since 2014, according to data collected by KTVU.

The death on Sunday was first reported by her housing unit pod mates to Santa Rita Jail Hotline coordinator Lina Garcia-Schmidt, who did not immediately identify her because she was trying to get permission from her family. 

"This really saddens me," Garcia-Schmidt said. "Women are second-class citizens in every way." 

Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, confirmed the woman died just before 1 p.m. in the minimum security section of the women's jail. The preliminary investigation reveals she might have ingested some type of controlled substance, possibly fentanyl, he said. 

At the time of her death, a nurse was in the unit along with several deputies, Kelly said. Narcan and emergency medical intervention were immediately provided. 

"Unfortunately, the woman passed away," Kelly said. "We have launched a full investigation which includes ACSO Homicide Detectives, SRJ Investigations, the District Attorney and the Coroner’s Bureau."

In 2020, the woman wrote a piece for SJR Solidarity about what she described as unsanitary conditions at Santa Rita Jail and the retaliation she said incarcerated people face there for speaking out.

The article was provided to KTVU by the hotline. It was published anonymously under the byline "Lady." But Garcia-Schmidt said that the woman who died was the author. Garcia-Schmidt said she even helped edit and publish the article. 

In her piece, the woman said she had been at Santa Rita for more than a year, and in that time, she witnessed "neglect, mental abuse, and unsanitary eating and living environments.

"Deputies spend more time sleeping during their shifts, laughing, cracking jokes, playing games, and watching videos on YouTube, while inmates suffer sitting in garbage-filled, hot, flooded toilet cells," she wrote. "Deputies show little to no interest when inmates need serious medical attention or cleaning supplies. Most of the time they are ignored. What happens is the deputies make "pod workers" which are inmates deal with all unclean filthy cells, clothes, or closets."

She specifically called out Housing Unit 24 for women, where she lived.

She accused the deputies of neglecting mentally ill inmates daily "by letting us suffer in unclean environments, and serving unclean food."

Since the COVID outbreak, the woman wrote that Santa Rita deputies "have become more negligent, lazy, and complacent in dealing with sanitation. Deputies get paid much to do nothing but sit around. Besides the horror of mixing new inmates in cages and cells with others, they leave empty cells from released inmates, uncleaned for days. And when a new inmate arrives they just throw them in filthy, germ-filled cells."

Kelly criticized the fact that the article was written anonymously.

He added that there are "validated and credible ways for inmates to report any and all issues within the jail. They can report these through the grievance process, to the federal monitor, to outside counsel and other inmate advocate groups. Inmates can also directly contact the media. So there is no need to be an anonymous person as there are many protections in place for inmates. This anonymous blog has zero credibility."

He also said that incarcerated people are never stopped from complaining publicly, they are even encouraged to call civil rights attorneys if they want. 

 "We would never dissuade anyone," Kelly said. "So that is a false assertion."

At least some conditions at Santa Rita have changed for the better since the anonymous blog post. 

During a spot check in February, a third-party consultant noted how there had been a turnaround at the jail and he commended the Sheriff's Office for an organized, comprehensive, and well-executed COVID-19 outbreak control plan calling in "one of the very best."

The U.S. Department of Justice last month harshly criticized the conditions for mentally ill people incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail and prosecutors threatened to sue if conditions didn't improve.

However, counsel for Alameda County called the DOJ's criticism "stale," saying that the federal attorneys hadn't visited the jail since 2019. 

Two other people have died at Santa Rita Jail this year. 

Jonas Park, who battled drug addiction and mental health issues, died by suicide on February 9. A woman who has yet to be identified also died by suicide on April 2. 

Santa Rita Jail has the highest number of in-custody deaths of any jail in the Bay Area. 

Of the 51 deaths, 20 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. 

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