Holding signs emblazoned with demands and frustrations regarding the prison system, about 80 protesters prepared to rally in downtown Santa Cruz at the Town Clock on Jan. 24. Organized by Sin Barras, the demonstration incorporated a march that ended at the Santa Cruz County Jail (SCCJ), where organizer Courtney Hanson said the real violence was taking place.
“We’re out here today because people are consistently dying in our county jail,” Hanson said.
Sin Barras started as an educational reading group in 2012 and now advocates for prison abolition. Tash Nguyen, another Sin Barras organizer, explained that the organization’s mission is to amplify community voices, since there seems to be little hope for a government solution for people who are incarcerated.
“We read all of these articles in the Sentinel [and saw], ‘Oh, someone died here in this jail, another person died there in this jail,’ and within a matter of months we were piecing together all of these articles and seeing that four people died in the last year and nobody is making any of these connections,” Nguyen said.
The connections Nguyen and fellow Sin Barras members made throughout the year inspired their first rally in April 2013, which drew enough public attention to incite a grand jury investigation. The rally was covered by City on a Hill Press and the article was cited in the final grand jury report, and by the time it was published in May 2014, the death toll rose to five. Despite grand jury recommendations, a sixth death occurred in the SCCJ two months ago.
Sin Barras attributes these deaths in part to unfollowed protocols and the jail’s partnership with the California Forensic Medical Group (CFMG), a for-profit correctional health care company working with jails in 27 counties.
“[CFMG is] caught up in lawsuits all over the state for instances of medical neglect just like what we’re seeing in Santa Cruz County,” said Sin Barras organizer Noah Miska. “There’s something very wrong when the group in charge of medical care stands to make a profit from providing less care, which is exactly the case with CFMG.”
Monterey County’s Public Defender James Egar and the American Civil Liberties Union are suing CFMG, according to a recent article in The Sacramento Bee. Ninety-two people died of a suicide or drug overdose while in jails partnered with CFMG from 2004 to 2014. The rate of deaths in jails partnered with CFMG are about 50 percent higher than in other county jails.
“Providing medical care to a high risk population is always a challenge. I’ve learned as a physician providing such care, that if mistakes are made, to embrace them and learn from them,” said medical care provider and CFMG President Taylor Fithian in an email. “We review every in-custody death internally and then have a second review by an external peer review physician. Our policies and procedures follow California Title 15 and the guidelines of the California Medical Association’s Institute for Medical Quality.”
One of the six deaths named in the Santa Cruz County’s grand jury report was Amanda Fox Sloan. Her mother, Fox Sloan, spoke after demonstrators marched down Pacific Avenue and stopped traffic on Cooper Street.
“In all of these agencies there are some really good, caring, honest, hard-working people who are just as frustrated as we are on the outside about what’s going on, [but] they cannot do the job they want,” Fox said to the crowd.
She also shared her appreciation for the grand jury investigation but explained that they don’t have enough power against these systemic issues. Before the rally, organizer Nguyen had a similar idea about the roots of the problem.
“There are much larger and systemic things that are intertwined — ideologies that ground police violence and state violence,” Nguyen said. “You know how people say, there are good cops and there are bad cops? It’s not so much that they’re good or bad, or that there are good or bad apples, it’s the tree. It’s not the bad apples — it’s the tree.”
Before the march continued toward the jail, demonstrators heard from Paul Spector, a registered nurse for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation who was fired for attempting to expose the medical negligence in the prison system. Spector explained consequences for inmates seeking mental health care before and after entering the facilities.
“Individuals who came in speaking well, understood where they were, what the situation was — these were patients not [in the facility] for punishment — and within six days you saw head banging, self-harm, violence against others, loss of awareness of where they were, who they were and how to form a sentence,” Spector said. “Some of this was permanent and would require extensive treatment [to fix].”
As the social commentary subsided, demonstrators moved to the back of the jail where several women were incarcerated. Sin Barras played music loud enough for inmates to hear, encouraging the crowd to dance and shout words of affirmation toward the tinted windows — the only response was hands hitting the bulletproof glass.
“Jailed deaths matter. Incarcerated lives matter, just as black and brown lives matter,” Nguyen said. “We have a system that disinvests in people who it cannot profit from and it’s explicit and apparent in these deaths.”