Santa Rita  05-15-20 151

(Photo - Doug Jorgensen)

Jonas Park, 33, died Feb. 9, four days after he appeared in Alameda County court to face two felony and two misdemeanor counts filed against him last summer, a Sheriff’s Office incident report said. KTVU first reported the nature of Park’s death based on records the station obtained from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and posted online.

Deputies found Park unresponsive in his cell, where he had hung himself with his blue bedsheet, the report said. Deputies performed life-saving measures, but Park was pronounced dead.

Park, who was arrested Feb. 3 in Emeryville on bench warrants, was assigned Feb. 7 to the jail’s 14-day quarantine housing area for newly booked inmates. The report said inmates in that unit receive one half hour of recreation each day that can be used to shower, watch TV or make phone calls.

Jail officials established the unit following the COVID-19 pandemic’s outbreak in an effort to curtail the spread of the coronavirus among inmates.

According to deputies’ reports, Park had banged and kicked on his cell door about 1 p.m. that day, complaining that he had not received a computer tablet for three days. He was told there were not enough for every inmate, but deputies calmed him down and provided him with one about an hour later. Inmates can use the devices to communicate with relatives.

Park’s death was the first suicide in 2021 at the Santa Rita facility after none occurred in 2020. Deputies were credited with saving two inmates who attempted to take their own lives.

Kara Janssen, an attorney whose San Francisco-based firm Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld filed a federal lawsuit against the county in 2018, alleging the Santa Rita Jail was understaffed and provided inadequate care to mentally ill inmates behind bars, said she was pleased to see no suicides occurred last year, but was sad to see the good news end.

The federal lawsuit alleged that mentally ill inmates were required to spend virtually the whole day in their cells and that there was little mental health treatment available to them.

In response, the county brought in experts to examine jail conditions, which included dealing with a high suicide rate. The experts agreed conditions for the mentally ill and for recreation needed to improve.

Last year, to address concerns in the lawsuit that is still being negotiated, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors approved spending $318 million through 2023. The funds will go toward instituting mental health programs and increase staffing to allow for inmates to spend more time out of their cells and for increased observation of suicide prevention cells.

Although much of the hiring and programs will take time to implement, Janssen said increased staffing has helped. Deputies, who were paid overtime to work shifts in the jail, took actions that prevented deaths. Janssen said the pandemic and a reduced jail population also likely played a role in the drop.

But, she said, it was “very concerning” to read in the sheriff’s report that inmates in the quarantine unit received just 30 minutes outside of their cells.

“That’s a very low amount,” Janssen said. “In my view people should get a minimum of two hours out of cell per day. I think it can be more than that. These are not individuals deemed to be a risk to others. These are just people coming into the jail and are going through a quarantine because of a pandemic.”

Janssen said she recognized the Sheriff’s Office has a “hard line to walk” keeping inmates isolated to protect them from becoming ill. She said the hope is vaccinations will create less need for a quarantine unit.

Janssen said she did not know enough to say what went wrong with Park.

“It’s a really terrible situation,” she said. “It is safe to say anytime somebody is able to commit suicide in a jail or prison, something went wrong. There are many points (when) you can intervene and prevent somebody from committing suicide.”

Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly, a department spokesman, referred questions about Park’s death to Capt. Dan Brodie, who oversees the office’s Internal Compliance Unit. He was not available for comment.

Kelly noted that the county’s increased funding, mental health programs and personnel will be phased in over the next few years, but improvements have already helped result in the drop in suicides.

Sheriff Gregory Ahern, Kelly said, had told the Board of Supervisors for 10 years that the office had a problem with mental health in the jail and needed funding for programs and personnel to save lives.

“Unfortunately, it took the result of that lawsuit and this litigation to shine a light on the issues,” Kelly said.

Kelly said one suicide is tragic. He credited deputies with preventing suicides and deaths from drug overdoses.

Park’s mother, Terri Williams Park, told KTVU that she had lost contact with her son when he moved from Florida to the Bay Area. She said he struggled with drugs and heard voices in his head. He took to crime after never having a real job, she said.

"But he would always call me when he was in jail," she said. "I was his support system."

Court records show Park was charged with unlawful driving or taking of a vehicle, and receiving stolen property — a vehicle. Both are felonies. He was also charged with misdemeanor counts of fraudulent possession of personal information and receiving stolen property, both misdemeanors. He faced special allegations that he committed the felonies while on bail or release.

Janssen said Park might have been going through drug withdrawal, had recently learned a family member died, was kept isolated and was unable to contact his mother. She said there was no indication anyone with mental health counseled him.

“People are not supposed to be dying in our local county jail and certainly not committing suicide,” she said.

Jail Shows Low COVID-19 Vaccination Rate

Less than three months after a December 2020 COVID-19 outbreak infected more than 100 inmates at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, just one inmate tested positive for the coronavirus in the most recent sampling, sheriff’s officials said.

The improvement in curtailing the spread was reported at the same time COVID-19 vaccinations were given at the facility. So far, 253 inmates have received their first Moderna vaccine since injections began Feb. 18, and 69 have received the single dose Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office reported.

Two inmates who received their first Moderna dose before going to jail received their second injection behind bars.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly called it a long-term process to vaccinate inmates, jail employees and contractors. He said 1,028 inmates have been offered vaccines, but only about 25% have agreed to be inoculated. Kelly said that number is good, but the county is hoping to persuade more inmates to accept injections through education programs and by moving toward the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that requires one dose.

“It seems we will have a better buy-in,” Kelly said. “A lot of these are young people. To try to convince them to take a shot — they are not that interested.”

Inmates might be reluctant to receive an injection from a police agency, Kelly said.

The county’s Public Health department is planning a messaging campaign to improve the numbers.

Kelly said she thought the number accepting a vaccine was pretty good.

Kara Janssen, whose law firm sued Alameda County and the Sheriff’s Office in 2018, alleging the jail provided inadequate mental health care for inmates, said she hoped jail officials can increase the number of prisoners receiving vaccines. However, she said it was understandable that younger people might not feel vulnerable to the illness and others who distrust the government, including the mentally ill, might not want the injection behind bars.

“Obviously, we are concerned about that low level of acceptance,” she said.

Throughout the pandemic, jail officials initiated procedures to keep staff and inmates from a COVID-19 spread. This included a 14-day quarantine for new inmates.

On Dec. 30, jail officials reported that 110 inmates tested positive, a large increase. Another 76 tested positive in January. Those numbers mirrored the world outside of jail, where a surge occurred across the country after the holidays.

Last year, county prosecutors reduced the number of inmates at Santa Rita Jail from 2,500 to 1,700, but it has slowly crept up as crime has increased. The latest number of inmates is about 2,100.

In the latest numbers released Sunday, the Sheriff’s Office had conducted 10,327 tests since the pandemic began, with 562 positive results. Of those, 342 formerly positive inmates have recovered and remain in custody.

All of the 109 staff members and contractors who tested positive have recovered.