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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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He was first placed on suicide watch in a "safety cell," rooms with no furnishings except for a door and a grate on the floor that's used as a toilet. According to Masterson's family's lawsuit, inmates in safety cells are stripped naked and dressed in a tear-proof smock. They are not given access to toilet paper and have no way to wash up, so they and the cell get progressively dirtier the longer they're in there.

"These conditions are traumatic for all prisoners, but especially for those who are already experiencing severe mental-health symptoms," the class-action lawsuit alleges. "Suicidal prisoners perceive the safety cells as a method of punishment which dissuades them from telling staff they are suicidal."

Masterson was moved to administrative segregation in Housing Unit 2 on April 6. While there, he asked for mental-health assistance, the lawsuit alleges, but no one responded.

On the afternoon of April 7, Masterson was acting bizarrely. He clogged the toilet and flooded his cell and had partially covered the window in wet toilet paper, according to the lawsuit. Deputies who witnessed the behavior did not intervene or contact mental-health staff. A welfare check was conducted about an hour before he was found dead, but the suit alleges that Deputy Nicholas Lagorio's check was "dangerously cursory and superficial," since he had no clear view of Masterson.

While state records show there were four deaths in Santa Rita Jail in 2018, Masterson's was the only death disclosed in a press release. Two other inmates died in the jail within three days in June, but their deaths were only publicly reported a week later, after the East Bay Express received a tip. Even then, the sheriff's office did not release their names for months. And one death in March 2018, that of Gino Willie Dalbianco, is being publicly disclosed here for the first time. In fact, when confirming the deaths of Armstrong and Dickey last July, Sgt. Kelly said there had been three deaths in Santa Rita at that point in 2018. In fact, there had been four.

Dalbianco, 58, had been arrested earlier in the year and charged with failing to register as a sex offender after a felony conviction. He was assigned to Housing Unit 9, the behavioral health unit, according to the sheriff's office's incident report. Dalbianco was found unresponsive in his bunk at 7:52 a.m. on March 8, 2018, and was pronounced dead there. An autopsy revealed his cause of death to be acute pulmonary emboli; blood clots had entered the arteries in his lungs. Dalbianco had a long history of arrests and incarceration. A coroner's investigator was unable to locate his next of kin; his only family member listed in a law enforcement database had died in 1982.

Although Dujuan Armstrong died on the night of Saturday, June 23, his family wasn't notified until after he was scheduled to be released the following evening. Later that night, a sergeant went to Doss's Oakland home to tell her that her son was dead. Jesus Dickey was found dead in his cell two days after Armstrong was scheduled to be released, but not even his name was publicly disclosed until it was reported in the East Bay Express the following January.

Ceasar Pajuelo, 70, was found unresponsive in his cell on March 10, and thus appears to be the first death at Santa Rita in 2019. The sheriff's office said that Pajuelo had been beaten by his cellmate, 19-year-old Paul Stefano, who was charged with murder days later. Stefano was in custody for auto theft.

A second inmate died later in March, but according to the sheriff's office, his death doesn't count as an in-custody death. Michael Hermon, 47, was punched in the nose during a fight on March 13. His nose didn't stop bleeding and he was taken to the hospital. Eventually he was placed on life support and died.

Hermon's death wasn't disclosed publicly until his family alerted Berkeleyside, which reported the story on April 5. Hermon, a Gulf War veteran with a Ph.D. in philosophy, had been arrested in Berkeley in February after he had allegedly fired a gun into his own van, injuring no one. He was scheduled to be moved to a diversion program for veterans, but the transfer hadn't happened because of space constraints, according to Berkeleyside.

"There are a lot of unknowns as to how he ultimately died and until the medical reports are finalized we can not draw a conclusion," Kelly told the Express in an email. "A series of unforeseen medical events and issues unfolded that led to him being on life support and passing."

Kelly said the sheriff's office always complies with its requirements to report in-custody deaths to the state and the county Board of Supervisors. Yet he did not respond to follow up questions about why the deaths of four inmates this and last year were not disclosed via press release.

Meanwhile, the three-year contract for the jail's embattled health care provider, California Forensic Medical Group, is up this year. But the contract authorizes two one-year extensions, and Kelly said it is likely the county will use the extension this year.

And Barbara Doss, the grieving mother of Dujuan Armstrong, still is seeking answers as the one-year anniversary of his death approaches.


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