Women sue Santa Rita over humiliating treatment; sheriff says facility is "best big jail in nation"

Like most mothers, Candace Steel, 32, vividly remembers the day her baby was born.

But unlike most, Steel’s memories are pierced with pain and horror: Her daughter was born at Santa Rita Jail. And because Alameda County sheriff’s deputies did not believe she was in labor, Steel delivered baby Hope alone, in a cell. 

“I was hitting that call button like a million, bazillion times and nobody answered,” Steel recounted in an interview from her new home in Henderson, Nevada, where she is staying with family and trying to get her life back together. “They ignored me completely. I noticed they shut the little window to muffle my screams because I was screaming, ‘Help me! Help me! My baby’s coming!’”

After Hope was born, Steel said a deputy finally opened the door after hearing the baby’s cries. 

“I’m standing there in a puddle of my own blood...and all the deputy could say was, ‘Oh, OK,’” Steel said. “I just couldn’t believe they would put me through that.”  

PHOTOS: A rare tour inside Santa Rita Jail%INLINE%

Alameda County authorities dispute Steel’s account and are fighting her version of what happened on July 23, 2017 after deputies arrested her for trespassing and child endangerment on Caltrans property. Steel was living in “deplorable” conditions with her boyfriend and older daughter at a homeless camp, police reports state. Federal court documents allege that deputies took Steel to the hospital three days earlier, as well as had a nurse look at her on the day in question. But medical staff determined she was only eight months pregnant, not dilated and “only had a stomach ache,” court papers allege. Steel was returned to Santa Rita Jail, and this time, put in an isolation cell as “punishment,” court documents contend, because deputies thought she was exaggerating her labor pains.

Steel's charges were later dismissed, according to her attorney. 

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern and his team say there is more to the story than what Steel claims. And in general, Ahern gave Santa Rita an “A” in terms of how he and his staff address women’s needs. He recently gave the 2 Investigates team a rare tour of the women’s wing of California’s third largest jail, based in Dublin, Calif., about 45 minutes east of San Francisco, after KTVU brought these allegations to him.

“I think we’re the best big jail in the nation,” Ahern said. 

Alameda County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Tom Madigan added: “This job means something to people. It cuts deep when people make false allegations about you. But it’s part of the job and we understand that."

Steel joins at least 28 other women who have sued the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office since 2014, alleging civil rights violations, medical malpractice and emotional distress. One woman sued after she was ordered, but refused, to take off her top in front of men. Another sued after she alleged deputies refused to give her a menstrual pad for more than six hours despite asking for one multiple times. Several other plaintiffs complained of foul odors and unsanitary conditions. Oakland attorney Yolanda Huang represents all the plaintiffs spanning four lawsuits. 2 Investigates interviewed three of the women suing the sheriff, who denies the multiple claims.

“Even in jail, women are second-class citizens,” Huang said.

Nationally, the rates of female incarceration -- which are growing at twice the rate of men -- are raising alarms for several national advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union. And this fall, the Inspector General’s  U.S. Department of Justice issued a report stating that the government’s past practices of dealing with women in custody has “not been strategic.” The authors reminded wardens across the country that all policies moving forward “address the distinctive needs of female inmates.” 

The reasons for why the rates are increasing do not yet exist because not enough research has been conducted, said Aleks Kajstura, legal director at the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research agency in Northampton, Mass. But as a result, Kajstura and other critics say, routine jail practices often disproportionately impact women, ranging from how guards address sexual abuse to whether there’s enough toilet paper. 

“Jails are certainly not suited for men. But they are even less suited for women,” Kajstura said. “Jails and prisons have historically been built for mostly men. They’re not meant to handle women, who have different needs.” 

California defies the national statistics, and the rate of female incarceration has been decreasing in the Golden State. Specifically, in Santa Rita’s case, Ahern and his deputies insist they do pay special attention to women. In fact, the jail was built in 1989, Ahern said, and was designed specifically to address women’s health concerns. Currently, out of the total incarcerated population, women make up about 10 percent of the population at Santa Rita. 

During the tour of the women’s wing with 2 Investigates, Ahern didn’t want to speak about any case in particular. But in general, he claimed most women who sue the jails are out for the money.

“You mean the people who are in custody for murder, rape and robbery,” Ahern asked rhetorically, “and who have lied their entire lives? We deal with people who don’t always tell the truth. That’s why this is called jail...People are trying to get financial gain on things we don’t think are true.”

None of the three women that 2 Investigates interviewed ended up being convicted for the crimes that they were arrested for. The charges against all of them were dropped, says their attorney. 

On a recent weekday afternoon, Ahern and a team of about a dozen sergeants and other top jail brass led 2 Investigates through the facility’s dental, OB-gyn and dialysis clinics, all of which looked organized, well equipped and like traditional doctor’s offices. “It goes all the way from first aid to advance care dentistry,” Ahern said. “We want to make sure the inmates get the best care that we have here. We’re responsible for their care, custody and control.” 

On this day, and despite claims in lawsuits about blood-stained and feces-covered walls, the rooms were clean and there was no foul odors in the air. There was plenty of toilet paper and menstrual pads lining the bathroom shelves. Ahern and his team said they didn’t tidy up for the TV tour, saying that would have been impossible. Ahern touched the door handles at one point during the tour, telling KTVU: “We’re very proud. Even our door knobs are polished.” 

Not all women are unhappy with the treatment they get at Santa Rita. On the tour, KTVU bumped into inmate Paula Ewing, who said that she lived on the streets and hadn’t really ever gone to the doctor. She was seen at the medical clinic at Santa Rita, where she was diagnosed with cancer and is now being treated. “I”m glad God saved me and put me here,” she said, “because I was dying on my feet.” 

While Steel’s allegations are arguably the most egregious, the other women suing the sheriff are claiming a host of other issues that they claim unfairly target females.

Oakland attorney Anne Weills was arrested during a civil rights protest four years ago. She said she was ordered to take off her sweater in front of male inmates at age 72. But she refused.

Weills, three other plaintiffs and her attorney, ended up settling with the county for $130,000 along with a written promise that jail policies would change toward the betterment of female inmates. The jail agreed, while admitting no wrongdoing, to add privacy curtains to intake rooms, mandate that deputies check in on inmates every 30 minutes and ensure that strip searches be done by a deputy of the same sex, among other changes. 

“Ultimately, we decided it was more important to make changes,” Weills said. “And for the women following us to not suffer this type of abuse and conditions.” 

The sheriff and his staff say these policies have taken place.

However, just months after Weills’ settlement took hold, Cindy Turano, 42, a Richmond-area architect, was arrested on Christmas Day in 2016 during a heated domestic dispute with her now ex-husband. Turano said she was denied a menstrual pad for more six hours despite asking for one four times. 

“I bled through everything,” Turano said. “I bled all over myself. My clothes. The bench I was sitting on. I walked out of the jail soaked, covered in blood. I was ashamed...of basically being a woman.” 

She also said the cell she stayed in was disgusting. “There was smeared feces on the walls and bloody handprints,” she said.

She was eventually given a pad. But it was too late.

After being released the next morning, Turano had to hop on BART and a bus back home to where she lived in the Berkeley hills with blood-stained pants. 

In court papers, the sheriff’s attorneys contended that Turano was not subjected to “cruel and unusual” punishment because the time she had to endure without a pad wasn’t even eight hours. And, they argued, the county can’t be accused of bias against women because the jails don’t “provide hygiene products to men.” 

The Alameda County sheriff’s attorneys filed a motion denying Turano’s claims. When asked whether that means the department believes her version of the story never happened, a sheriff’s commander responded: “Correct.” 

Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the department, said there are many good deputies who work at the jail, and the multitude of allegations are "offensive and they do hurt." He said many jail employees and spend their "entire careers" trying to make Santa Rita a safe place for the inmates held there.

But Turano and Steel counter they must speak out about the alleged mistreatment they endured. If not for themselves, then for others. 

“I want it to change,” Steel said. "Women who have gone through what I’ve been through need to step up and not be afraid. No woman should have to do that, whether they are in jail or not.” 

KTVU photographers Tony Hodrick and Chandler Landon contributed to this report.