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The Most Dangerous Place in Alameda County

A "barbaric" litany of horrors from Santa Rita, "the best big jail in the nation."



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Three days earlier, Steel had been living with her boyfriend and 2-year-old daughter in an encampment on Caltrans property near Interstate 580 in Castro Valley. She was arrested by Alameda County Sheriff's Deputy Marcus Cox, who wrote in court filings that conditions at the camp were "deplorable," with piles of trash, decaying food, and a shallow hole filled with urine and feces.

Steel's daughter was "incredibly disheveled," Cox wrote, and "covered in grime and filth." Her hair was matted and her clothes were soiled, and he worried that the toddler might wander onto the nearby highway. The Alameda County District Attorney's Office eventually charged Steel with one misdemeanor count of child endangerment. The charge was later dismissed.

According to her lawsuit against the county and the jail's medical provider, California Forensic Medical Group, Steel was booked into Santa Rita shortly after midnight. When doctors at Valley Care Hospital examined her before she was booked, they determined that she was eight months pregnant.

She told the doctors that she'd smoked methamphetamine and drank alcohol during her pregnancy, that she had received no pre-natal care, and did not know her due date, according to her lawsuit. Her previous pregnancy had ended with her having seizures and spontaneously delivering the baby. Hospital staff diagnosed her with a urinary tract infection, which can lead to pre-term labor and delivery.

But despite her precarious medical state and the risks that it posed, she was transferred to Santa Rita. Two days later, she told jail staff she was in so much pain that she could not walk and was crawling on her hands and knees, according to the lawsuit. She was examined by a medical group nurse, who determined she only had a stomach ache, according to the lawsuit. When she was returned to the housing unit, deputies put her in an isolation cell as punishment, where she screamed in pain.

Hours later, the other inmates heard Steel stop screaming. According to the lawsuit, her cries were replaced by those of her newborn daughter.

The Alameda County Sheriff's Office has acknowledged that Steel gave birth in an isolation cell on July 23, 2017 after a "series of incidents," but says that staff discovered her in the process and helped her deliver the baby. Steel has said that's not true.

Her lawsuit was filed separately last year, but Steel's ordeal was first disclosed in a class-action lawsuit alleging systemic failures in providing proper healthcare to incarcerated women by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office and the medical group. Steel was not included in that lawsuit only because the attorneys were unable to find her at the time. The two cases are now related as they make their way through federal court.

The sheriff's office called a press conference just after the class-action lawsuit was filed in January 2018. While Sgt. Ray Kelly acknowledged that a woman had given birth in the jail, he said she had gone to the hospital but been misdiagnosed and taken back to the jail. "That child was born healthy as far as we know and there were no lasting effects from that incident," Kelly said.

The suit also alleges that two women suffered miscarriages after being encouraged by medical staff to have an abortion. In one case, it alleges that guards may have caused the miscarriage.

Christina Zepeda, who was 37 years old at the time, was booked into jail on Aug. 13, 2017, for a felony burglary conviction. She was pregnant when she entered the jail and told medical staff that she wasn't feeling well, according to the lawsuit. But the suit alleges she never received any medical care; instead the medical staff told her she could have an abortion anytime, and the guards encouraged her to do so. Four days later, she suffered a miscarriage. The lawsuit alleges that she received no counseling or support as she was grieving.

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Jaclyn Mohrbacher, says she also had a miscarriage in custody. Mohrbacher alleges that guards and medical staff tried to force her to get an abortion, and repeatedly strip-searched her before her miscarriage. The staff even falsely told her that her baby was dead, the suit alleges. Mohrbacher refused to have an abortion, but the medical staff scheduled one anyway. Two male deputies tried to force her from her housing unit to have an abortion, the lawsuit alleges, yet she resisted. Deputies Debra Farmanian and Tania Pope told her she "needed to get" an abortion, the suit alleges, and they accused her of being on drugs.

At last year's press conference, Kelly from the sheriff's office said those allegations are false. "[Deputies] would never engage in that kind of egregious behavior to influence women to terminate a pregnancy," he said.

The suit also alleges that jail guards strip-searched Mohrbacher three times in less than a week. During the third search, she started bleeding from her vagina, and eventually suffered a miscarriage. The lawsuit alleges that she never received medical care for her miscarriage.

That same month, a California Forensic Medical Group staffer quit in protest over the company's treatment of pregnant inmates, specifically those suffering from opioid dependency. Savannah O'Neill was the jail's opioid treatment program coordinator from February 2017 until her Dec. 6, 2017 resignation. She is a certified addiction treatment counselor and associate clinical social worker who had worked with the county since 2016 on overdose prevention and distributing naxalone, an overdose-reversal drug that many drug users keep on hand in case of an accidental overdose. Police officers are increasingly carrying the drug and have credited it with saving lives.


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