A group of approximately 50 people from various community organizations rallied in Oakland on a cloudy Tuesday morning to decry additional funding for the Alameda County jail that has seen dozens of deaths over recent years along with increasing scrutiny.
Members of the groups composing the recently formed Care First Community Coalition and community members gathered at the Alameda County Administrative Services Building to protest the allocation of additional funds in the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year to Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.
"You can't get well in a cell. The supervisors are telling us that they are more willing to incarcerate our family members than care for them. We call for care and treatment first," said Glenn Turner of Families Advocating for the Seriously Mentally Ill (FASMI) in a statement ahead of the rally.
At the event, Turner detailed the impact that the alleged mishandling of her daughter Hazel Turner's mental health needs during her time in Santa Rita had on her and her family -- specifically her daughter's refusal to accept mental health treatment after being released, which Turner said ultimately led to her death.
"My daughter died at 48, just about three or four years ago, but she had serious mental illness from her 20s on," Turner said.
"That was a long haul," Turner added. "And eventually she ended up in Santa Rita for setting fire to a family home during psychosis. She spent a year in Santa Rita. And when people are in a psychotic episode, when they are manic, they are disturbed, they're distressed, they're suffering, they don't know what's going on. So what do you think happens when they wind up in Santa Rita? Resisting arrest -- solitary for you."
Turner said that like many people who are incarcerated at Santa Rita, her daughter was there for months. Despite ultimately being treated with effective medication before her release, Turner said that she watched her daughter rapidly spiral downward, refusing medical care of any kind after her time behind bars, and spending years on the streets before Turner managed to get her into housing.
"After my daughter died I thought 'now I have some energy,'" Turner said. "I don't have to work all the time. I'm going to fight for justice ... that's it, that's my new job."
Turner and FASMI are among the numerous activists and community groups making up Care First, with the latest rally being the coalition's second event, following a vigil and march outside the doors of Santa Rita Jail in early April with a crowd of approximately 75 people.
At the time of the April vigil, the jail had reported four deaths in 2023 and 66 total since 2014. Since then, the death toll this year has risen to five, following the death of Eric Magana, a homeless man from Livermore, on April 27.
Barbara Doss, whose son Dujuan Armstrong died while incarcerated at Santa Rita in 2018, also said that she was dedicated to seeking justice for her child and pushing lawmakers to find alternatives to incarceration and oversee the jail and sheriff's office.
"We have a mental health crisis going on in the jail system," Doss said. "We have murders going on in the jail system. And you want to give them money? I don't think so."
Doss along with other family members of Armstrong's, including his two children, were plaintiffs in a subsequent lawsuit filed by civil rights attorney John Burris in 2019 that settled in March.
"We need to be first of all holding these officers accountable for what they have been doing," Doss said. "You want to give money away? Give it to mental health care. Give it to the people who ain't got no home. Give it to the people that's in Santa Rita to get out of Santa Rita."
Doss said that nearly five years later, she still had questions about her son's death that had not been answered in court proceedings or elsewhere.
"From a Friday to a Sunday, he was supposed to come home," Doss said. "I'm waiting on my baby, I'm cooking dinner ... They didn't come to my house until 8:35 that evening on Sunday to tell me my child was deceased."
While a class action lawsuit filed against the county in 2018 ultimately yielded a settlement that included a commitment to accountability and oversight of the jail in 2021, as did pressure from activists during protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020, Care First organizers said that the Board of Supervisors had failed to implement any significant measures.
"When the county says we need money for housing; we need money for mental health care; we need money for substance use treatment -- there's a rule, an unwritten rule that the county administrator says if you want to get that money you have to identify an outside source for that money," said John Lindsay-Poland, of the American Friends Service Committee.
"So even though after the George Floyd protests in 2020 there was a forensic thing that was introduced for $50 million annually in mental healthcare in the county and the Board of Supervisors says that sounds really great, where's the money? And there wasn't any money from an outside source, so they have not funded it," he continued.
In particular, activists at this week's rally were protesting a proposed $80 million expansion for Santa Rita that was added as part of the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which supervisors heard a presentation on during a special meeting at 3 p.m. Of the total pricetag, nearly $27 million would come from county funds, according to Care First organizers.
"How can Alameda County justify spending $27 million to fund the expansion of a jail with a track record of negligence and abuse? We're sick and tired of hearing that there's no money for resources like permanent supportive housing and full service partnerships," said Joy George of Restore Oakland Inc. "These asks are not aspirational, they are essential to providing stability and community safety."
A spokesperson for District 1 Supervisor David Haubert's office said that they had no comment on the rally but supported everyone's right to protest and were open to Care First's core mission. District 4 Supervisor Nate Miley's office did not return a request for comment as of Tuesday evening.
While it has only been over the past year that a range of community and activist groups raising concerns about deaths at Santa Rita have come together to form Care First, speakers at Tuesday's rally emphasized that they would be continuing to make their message heard by public officials, and would continue to push for funding for mental health care and affordable housing in the county rather than increased spending on the jail and sheriff's office.
Doss and Turner were comparing stories and discussing next steps as the crowd dissipated at approximately 11:30 a.m.