By Genoa Barrow | Senior Staff Writer

The current Sacramento County sheriff and inspector general both are African American. A lot of eyes are on them and how they respond to community concerns.

Among those paying close attention are the 11 members of the county’s Community Review Commission. The group, made up of appointed locals, meets monthly to improve public transparency and accountability of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office and provide greater community interaction and communication with the Office of Inspector General. Local activists, media outlets and other members of the public have called out the Sheriff’s Office for its failure to report a number of in-custody deaths.

At each meeting, Inspector General Francine Tournour offers updates on the number of complaints her office received during the previous month and reads off critical incidents known to have occurred at local jail facilities. During the Aug. 5 session, Tournour noted the deaths of two individuals at the main jail in downtown Sacramento on July 10 and 21. Both were found unresponsive in their cells.

Commissioner Michael Whiteside wanted to know just how extensive the issue of in-custody deaths is.

“I get it,” Whiteside said. “People die and there are different circumstances, but I sort of find it interesting with Sacramento County that these numbers sort of keep rolling out every month.”

Tournour pointed to information collected by the previous inspector general, Rick Braziel. According to data, there were nine in-custody deaths in 2021 and six in 2020. The grassroots activist group Decarcerate Sacramento recently held a vigil at the downtown jail, citing at least four people who have died in Sacramento County jails in 2023. Group leaders say there have been 64 reported deaths of people while in sheriff’s custody since 2014.

“Any death in the jail, no matter the number, is concerning,” Tournour said. “So I have been talking a lot with the jail administration as well as the undersheriff just to talk about some ways we can potentially combat these things.”

Tournour said she’d provide expanded info in her annual report.

Odette Crawford. Photo By Robert Maryland.

Odette Crawford, one of three African Americans on the commission, wanted to know how many deaths occur at the main jail compared to at the larger Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove.

“We know there’s a problem,” Crawford said.

All of the in-custody deaths in the last year have been at the downtown jail, Tournour said.

“All intake starts there at the main jail,” she explained. “If you have people that are coming in potentially with medical issues or detoxing off of, particularly, opioids, that puts them at higher risk of medical complications as they’re detoxing; or [in cases of] people when they’re freshly arrested who could have ingested something on their way in or once they get in. Those all come through the main jail doors, so you have a lower risk of potential deaths in custody at RCCC.”

The opioid epidemic has hit hard and Tournour wants to see more resources made available.

“You may have a situation sometimes where, for example, somebody’s getting arrested for theft. It’s not highly likely that they’re going to say, ‘Hey, you know what? I just ingested a whole ton of drugs as you were pulling me over to arrest me because I was worried about that and getting additional charges. Sometimes you don’t get these conversations directly with the arresting officer,” she said.

“I mentioned that to the undersheriff. There needs to be a more readily available, no- additional-charges type accountability questions when it comes to the ingesting of deadly illicit narcotics that might not show up until it’s too late, where something bursts inside of somebody’s intestinal tract or at the peak of the onset of those opioids, and you have an overdose situation. We had an additional conversation regarding maybe having Narcan more readily available in the jails and they were very much open to those suggestions as well.”

The Berkeley-based Prison Law Office said Sacramento County jail officials also are culpable, as some of the drugs that inmates are overdosing on are likely brought in by staffers. In a letter to Sheriff Jim Cooper dated Aug. 7, attorneys called the failure to check staffers upon entry into jail facilities “unacceptable.”

“The Sacramento County jail is in crisis,” the letter states. “Drugs are widely available inside the facilities and people are dying as a result. Despite the serious risk of harm to people in the jail, the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office is failing to make appropriate and sensible interdiction efforts to stop drugs from entering the jails.”

The commission meets at 6 p.m. on third Tuesdays in the Board of Supervisors chambers, located at 700 H St. Often commissioners are the only ones in the room. Crawford encourages more members of the public to attend meetings or call with questions and concerns.

“I’ve done presentations to six different organizations and told them to please come to these meetings because they have an opportunity to register their concerns and we are obligated to address them,” she said. “Don’t just sit there in a corner saying “poor me.” Bring your behinds and come to these meetings. Not enough people have come yet, but I’m still working on that.”

View agendas and learn more about future meetings.

Over the coming weeks, “Inside Out” will highlight the experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, look at efforts to improve local jail and prison facilities, and share the perspectives of Black correctional staffers and attorneys who work on change from within and activists who have dedicated their lives to shining a light on the inequities of the criminal justice system.