Eje Lynn-Jacobs, singing, and Laurence Severance on guitar. | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

A wave of COVID-positive cases at Santa Barbara’s Main Jail and the newly populated Northern Branch Jail, reports of overcrowded and unhealthy conditions, and the recent death of an inmate have sparked response from nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups pushing for a reduced population and safer living conditions for the more than 700 individuals incarcerated in the county.

Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) and the League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara teamed up with 14 other organizations to host a vigil at the Santa Barbara Courthouse in light of the recent issues in county jails. Dozens huddled in front of the sandstone archway to honor the death of 45-year-old Jonathan Paul Thomas, who was reported dead minutes after being placed into a single-occupancy “safety cell” face down and stripped of clothing.

“We came together here in grief, and some of us are here in anger, and that’s appropriate,” public defender Mark Saatjian said. The Main Jail, though it is less than five miles away from the courthouse, he said, is often out of sight and out of mind. But for those inside — where four out of five are unsentenced, families cannot visit, and even a phone call requires money — being locked up during a pandemic can carry heavy traumas.

Gail Osherenko, board member, League of Women Voters S.B. | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

Gilberto Murillo, a chair of UC Santa Barbara’s Underground Scholars Initiative for formerly incarcerated students, spoke from experience of the “dehumanization process” that happens within the American legal system. They are humiliated, tortured, and stripped of their humanity, he said, and stuck in a system that lacks “resources, accountability, and morality.”

Thomas’s death raised many questions similar to those raised in a Grand Jury investigation of a suicide at the Main Jail in February 2021, which found that throughout the intake process, staff “failed to identify” the mental health needs of Michael Anthony Remijio, who was found dead with a bed sheet wrapped around his neck hours after being placed in a single occupancy cell. 

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As of last Friday, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office reported that the COVID outbreak has reached 252 individuals since December 8, 2021, and the newly populated Northern Branch Jail has its own smaller outbreak, which has reached 11 inmates since it was cleared for occupancy 10 days ago. 244 individuals were moved from the Main Jail to the new Northern Branch Jail on January 22 in what the Sheriff’s Office said was a concerted effort to reduce crowding and the risk of further spread. In the spring of 2020, the jail’s population was reduced to 550, but over the past two years, the number of inmates has crept back above 720.

Larry Severance, board member of CLUE and co-chair of the CLUE Criminal Justice Workgroup, said the vigil is the start of a “boots on the ground” effort to address these issues, and specifically to advocate for a reduced jail population, more humane treatment of those in county jails, and support effort to improve racial justice.

Pastor Gerardo “Jerry” Menchaca, who served as a prison chaplain for nearly two decades, said he hopes that these issues will open a dialogue, and that county leaders will sit at the table with concerned community members. “We need to open dialogue,” he said.

Gilberto Murillo, Underground Scholars | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

“I believe we can make a difference, and that difference can start tonight,” Menchaca said. “Make a phone call; talk to your county supervisor; call your city councilmember. Let’s hold those people that are in office accountable for what they do cause they work for us.”

CLUE’s Criminal Justice Workgroup, which is a joint effort with the League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara, is currently in the process of meeting with city officials about the proposed redesigns of the Main Jail, and co-chair Maureen Earls said the group is pushing for a lower capacity. “This remodel is the legacy of our community leadership in our county for transforming a broken system,” she said. “We need to make it a change for a humane space for years to come.”

More info on how to get involved can be found on CLUE’s website, and a full video of the vigil is available here.

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