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Scrutinizing the Jails in California

Healing Justice Program joins others in pushing for an audit into jail deaths and use of state funds

California Assembly Member Sydney Kamlager from Los Angeles
From left: Ivette Alé of Dignity and Power Now, California Assembly Member Sydney Kamlager from Los Angeles,
and California State Auditor Elaine Howle. Photo: Office of Assembly Member Sydney Kamlager / AFSC

California grassroots campaigns to hold sheriffs responsible for their use of public funds to run county jails took an important step forward at the end of February, when the state legislature authorized an audit of jail operations in Los Angeles, Alameda and Fresno counties. 

In Alameda County, AFSC has been part of a coalition to audit the performance of Sheriff Greg Ahern, who runs Santa Rita Jail, the fifth largest jail in the country. The jail has had 47 in-custody deaths since 2014, including two in the last month alone, and paid out more in civil rights abuse settlements than any other law enforcement agency in the San Francisco Bay Area. Eighty-three percent of prisoners in Alameda County have not yet been sentenced, one of the highest rates in the state.

Despite a decline by nearly half in the number of prisoners, the sheriff’s budget has ballooned in the last ten years. A hunger strike by inmates and kitchen workers in the jail and multiple lawsuits have revealed abuses, forced labor, and systematic indifference in the jail.

Yet county supervisors refused to undertake an audit of jail policies and practices that have led to these problems, claiming the audit could give ammunition to those suing the county.

California Assembly Member Sydney Kamlager from Los Angeles knew about the community audit campaign in Alameda County. She requested the state auditor to audit three counties’ use of hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds that were intended to support alternatives to incarceration, but instead mostly have been used by sheriffs for the jails.

On February 26, a state legislature committee considered the request, including testimony and public comment by AFSC, other community justice organizations, and Sheriff Ahern. Ahern claimed – wrongly – that only 39 deaths had occurred in the jail. The committee then voted 10 to 2 to approve the audit, which the state auditor will carry out this year.

The audit will address the county jails’ use of state funds, a small portion of the overall jail budgets. But it will also examine the reasons for so many deaths in the three jails and make recommendations for changes. It is a welcome open door for communities seeking to end mass incarceration and the punitive and racist practices of county jails.

For more information and to get involved, please contact John Lindsay-Poland at JLindsay-Poland@afsc.org.

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