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For Virus Prevention, More Staff at Jail?

Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern siezes opportunity to connect staffing to virus response.

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When Sen. Nancy Skinner raised the possibility of an audit of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office last year, it energized progressives who have come to loath the department and its leader for what they believe is a lack of transparency amid mounting deaths at the Santa Rita Jail and misconduct by his deputies. But the move also hardened those who have long supported Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern.

Ahern's supporters have said an audit, if ever performed, would highlight the department's need to expand its ranks. Since last year, Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty has pushed this narrative with the aim of hiring more deputies. A supervisorial candidate in the March primary also articulated the same talking points.

And just last week, when the department's response to the virus at the Santa Rita Jail was discussed at a Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Nate Miley said the potential crisis at the jail is another reason why the sheriff needs more deputies.

Ahern may get his wish this week, as the Board of Supervisors was scheduled at press time to debate a request to allocate $85 million for the next three years to hire 216 sworn officers and 47 non-sworn officers. Furthermore, the Alameda County Health Services Agency proposes to hire another 107 employees to assist at the jail.

The sheriff's department proposes to include the expenditure in the upcoming fiscal year budget, a spokesman said.

Both county departments have been conferring with consultants over the issue of staffing at the jail, department officials said. "All of the independent staffing experts agree that the Santa Rita Jail is severely understaffed in all areas," a county staff report said.

The additional staffing, the sheriff's department said, will allow it to expand programs at the jail, additional "out-of-cell" time for inmates, and increased observation for suicide prevention.

The sheriff's office, however, acknowledges finding such a large number of new employees, at least sworn officers, may be difficult. Eighteen of the proposed new positions will deal with recruitment of new deputies, the county staff report said.

The sheriff's budget request comes shortly after roughly 400 inmates were released prior to the end of their sentences from Santa Rita Jail this month. The move was made to hopefully lessen any outbreaks of the coronavirus that could occur at the facility. A nurse at the facility is reported to have tested positive for the virus last week.

Roughly 2,200 inmates are currently confined at the jail. But its population has steadily dropped while funding for the jail has increased over the year. In a letter from Skinner to the Board of Supervisors in February 2019 asking for an audit of the sheriff's department, she noted the disparity.

"In its fiscal oversight role, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors has an important responsibility to ensure that the ASCO is spending public funds wisely, particularly in the wake of several in-custody death and costly lawsuits, along with allegations of abuse and mistreatment of women," she wrote.

The sheriff's budget item was added late to last week's Board of Supervisors on Mar. 24 before later being pulled from the agenda. Notably, a federal lawsuit pertaining to allegations of civil rights allegations at Santa Rita Jail was heard in closed session last Tuesday and is again listed on Tuesday morning's agenda.

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