By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Old abandoned prison cellblock.
Courtesy of istockphoto

In the wake of several in-custody overdoses, a medical assistant at the Sacramento County main jail has been arrested for allegedly conspiring to bring in drugs and other “dangerous contraband.”

Sheriff Jim Cooper held a press conference Sept. 27 concerning the Aug. 29 arrest of Zareonna Harris. Harris, 23, is said to have used her security access and “position of trust” to bring in controlled substances to sell to individuals incarcerated at the main jail. At least four other people also face charges.

According to Cooper, Harris was arrested outside the downtown facility in possession of “cocaine, a cell phone, phone charger and screwheads that allow inmates to manipulate locks and manufacture weapons.” He was intentional in pointing out that Harris’ position “was brought in by [Adult] Correctional Health” and not the Sheriff’s Office.

Local community-based organizations such as Decarcerate Sacramento have been vocal about jail conditions, lack of adequate staffing and demands for accountability from county officials and the sheriff about in-custody incidents. As previously reported in The OBSERVER, the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office sent a letter addressed to Cooper on Aug. 7 that called out officials for failing to check staffers upon entry into jail facilities.

“The Sacramento Sheriff’s Office is failing to make appropriate and sensible interdiction efforts to stop drugs from entering the jails,” the letter stated.

Cooper is tired of taking the heat for in-custody deaths, which he said should fall on Adult Correctional Health.

“I have zero control over the majority of the problems cited in the Mays Consent Decree and they all pertain to correctional medical,” he said.

Of the six deaths in 2023, Cooper said five involved “medical-related issues.”

“I have no control over jail medical, yet the sheriff is blamed for everything,” Cooper said.

“I take responsibility for my deputies, their actions and what they do,” he continued. “This all revolves around jail medical,” which Cooper called “inept” and plagued by issues of leadership, management and oversight. “That’s a big issue we’re dealing with and fighting with,” he said.

Cooper cited lengthy intake and booking processes at the main jail and the frequency with which prisoners are sent out for medical attention that taxes sheriff’s personnel. He suggests a system overhaul.

“I’m at my breaking point,” Cooper said.

The Board of Supervisors issued a statement following Cooper’s press conference.

“Meeting the requirements of the federal Mays Consent Decree is a shared responsibility between Adult Correctional Health and the Sheriff’s Office, as the operator of the jail,” the statement reads.

“Inmates being booked into the Sacramento County Jail have a constitutional right to a standard of medical care, and Adult Correctional Health will not compromise that standard of care. … The county is working, along with the Sheriff’s Office, toward a larger intake facility and accessibility issues within the jail, in compliance with the decree. … Adult Correctional Health looks forward to continuing productive conversations with the Sheriff’s Office on how to improve medical care within the main jail.”