Oakland council resolution puts heat on county sheriff’s office
Marilyn Bechtel/PW

OAKLAND, Calif. – With unanimous passage May 21 of a resolution urging an independent performance and financial audit of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office headed by Sheriff Gregory Ahern, the Oakland City Council has joined a rising chorus of demands by human rights and racial justice organizations and family members of inmates who have lost their lives or experienced abuse.

The neighboring Berkeley City Council, and area state Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, had earlier joined in calling for the audit.

At a rally on the steps of City Hall before the Council meeting, Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, who introduced the resolution, told audit supporters, “We are here today to say we want accountability, transparency, and justice in how the office of the Alameda County Sheriff is run, because too many lives have been lost.”

Saying 35 county jail inmates have died in custody in the last five years, Bas noted “story after story from the families and loved ones of inmates, about inhumane conditions,” including a widely publicized incident in which a woman was forced to give birth alone in a dirty cell as workers ignored her cries.

“We want to know why the Sheriff’s Office budget has increased while the jail population has decreased,” Bas said. “We know, especially those of us here in Oakland, that the solution to public safety is a reinvestment in our community … we want to make sure those dollars are spent for real community safety.”

Backers of the resolution have pointed out that during the last decade, the county sheriff’s budget has grown by $144 million, reaching $443 million this year despite a declining inmate population. They say savings found through an audit could help fund programs that help support thriving communities, including job training, childcare, and quality education.

Bas was joined on the podium by City Councilmember Dan Kalb and told rally participants that Mayor Libby Schaaf is backing the resolution.

The Oakland City Council’s resolution calls for a “collaborative audit process in which Oakland residents, community groups, and Alameda County officials will work together on an audit scope of work that is in the best interest of the people.”

Among rally speakers was Barbara Doss, whose son, Dujuan Armstrong, 23, died soon after reporting to the Santa Rita county jail, where he was serving time on weekends for a minor offense. Doss still does not know the circumstances of her son’s death.

“Dujuan turned himself in on a Friday, we would pick him up on a Sunday,” Doss said. But one day, she said, she learned that Dujuan had died while in the jail.

“The Sheriff’s Department would not even give me the right to identify my own child. They told me, no, he was already identified. I said, how do I know that’s my son?”

As Doss described her efforts to confront Sheriff Ahern over her son’s death, she paused, overwhelmed by emotion. As participants chanted, “No Justice, No Peace!” she responded, “And that’s what I need for my son, Dujuan Armstrong!”

Jose Bernal, senior organizer at the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights – a lead organization in the fight for the audit – told the rally, “We cannot stand by and watch this anymore! This is a very clear, resounding message to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and Board of Supervisors: We are not going to sit by. This era of unaccountability is going to end; we are going to be at the Board of Supervisors’ Office.”

Besides the 35 inmate deaths, other issues reported at county jail facilities in Oakland and Santa Rita have included widespread sleep deprivation of inmates, illegal recordings of meetings between juvenile inmates and their lawyers, profiling poor black and Muslim inmates as special risks for radicalization, and 29 civil suits by women alleging abuse and mistreatment, including forced abortions.

Oakland City Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas | Marilyn Bechtel/PW

Sheriff Ahern and his staff have also been sharply criticized by immigrant rights and community groups for publishing the release dates of undocumented inmates and allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) access to non-public parts of the jail system.

Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), a federation of some 50 Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and nondenominational congregations and affiliated community organizations, issued a report in October 2018, summarizing issues including lack of medical care, poor food safety, lack of sanitary supplies for female inmates, excessive use of solitary confinement, lack of translators, and release of inmates in the middle of the night without adequate transportation. The last, in one instance, resulted in the death of a woman shortly after she was released.

Earlier this month, the local alternative publication East Bay Express featured an extensive, detailed and heart-wrenching study of the ways conditions and practices at Santa Rita Jail have affected inmates, their families and communities.

OCO is among a long list of organizations including the Justice Reinvestment Coalition of Alameda County, Showing Up for Racial Justice-Bay Area, American Friends Service Committee, and the Urban Peace Movement – that have been pressing for an independent financial and performance audit of the Alameda County Sheriff’s office since November 2017.


CONTRIBUTOR

Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for the People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986, and currently participates as a volunteer.

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