Santa Rita Jail. Photo by Scott Morris.

Lieutenant on leave after use of restraints leads to death in Santa Rita Jail

An Alameda County Sheriff’s lieutenant has been placed on leave and is under criminal investigation for the death of an inmate who was restrained in Santa Rita Jail in June. Sources said the lieutenant ordered the inmate chained to a cell door against the objections of deputies and they later found him with the chain wrapped around his neck.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly confirmed that Lt. Craig Cedergren has been placed on administrative leave and that there is an active investigation into the incident both by the sheriff’s office and the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.

Kelly said the investigation stems from injuries the inmate sustained in the jail on June 15. He was taken to a hospital but died about two weeks later. Kelly said he could not provide further details, citing the ongoing investigation.

But two sources familiar with the incident told the East Bay Express that the inmate was acting bizarrely and was either under the influence of drugs or suffering from a mental-health crisis. He was placed in an isolation cell, where sources said Cedergren ordered deputies to chain him to his cell door using a waist restraint.

According to the sources, Cedergren was warned by a sergeant and other deputies against the method of restraint, who told him it violated the sheriff’s office restraint policy, which was revised in May. But Cedergren said it would make the inmate easier to control as they could use the chains to pull him toward the door if they needed to move him to another location, the sources said.

Cedergren gave the deputies direct orders to restrain the inmate this way, the sources said.

When jail staff later checked on the inmate, he was found with the chain wrapped around his neck, either because he was suicidal or because he’d become entangled in them due to his confused state, according to the sources. He was unconscious and taken to a hospital, where the sourced indicated he was taken off life support and died about two weeks later.

Cedergren’s orders and the protests by the other deputies were all captured on body worn cameras, according to the sources.

The new allegations come just after the district attorney’s office revealed that another death in the jail last year was caused by deputies’ use of restraints. Dujuan Armstrong died in custody on June 23, 2018, after exhibiting similarly bizarre behavior following his admission to the jail the day before.

While deputies escorted Armstrong to the jail’s outpatient housing unit for further medical evaluation, he tried to pull away. They eventually placed him in a restraint device called the WRAP, which is wrapped around a person’s body and pulls them into a seated position, as well as a spit mask. An autopsy found that the restraints prevented him from breathing properly and he suffocated.

The deputies involved in that case — Joshua Plosser, Eduardo Rivera Velazquez, and Kevin Calhoun — were cleared of criminal charges by the district attorney’s office in June. The sheriff’s office has not yet released the results of its internal investigation.

The sheriff’s office also has been criticized for its treatment of inmates suffering mental illnesses. A class-action lawsuit was filed in December alleging systemic failures in mental-health treatment at the jail. It alleged that solitary confinement is routinely used for inmates who are suicidal, which can exacerbate their condition.

Sixteen people died by suicide in Alameda County Sheriff’s custody since 2010, according to state records.

That includes Raymond Reyes, 22, who took his own life on July 24 of this year. Deputies found him unconscious in a single-person cell with a bedsheet around his neck, Kelly said. Deputies cut the sheet off and unsuccessfully tried to revive him. Kelly said Reyes had been extradited to Alameda County after an arrest in San Mateo County on a litany of charges that included assault with a deadly weapon and burglary.

The sheriff’s office did not disclose Reyes’s death or the earlier inmate death by restraints until the East Bay Express received a tip regarding the incidents. It follows a pattern of undisclosed jail deaths last year, including Armstrong’s, which was not disclosed publicly by the sheriff’s office until after inquiries by the Express.

In addition to the suicides, another inmate with a mental-health disorder died in June 2018 under bizarre circumstances. Jesus Dickey was in custody for alleged sexual battery and kidnapping in Berkeley. He suffered from schizophrenia and his condition made him feel thirsty even after he drank a dangerous amount of water. He died from water intoxication.

Dickey had been prescribed medication for his condition, but somehow had avoided taking it. Pills were found stuffed in his sock after he died.

Santa Rita and California’s jails in general often deal with people with mental-health disorders. About 44 percent of the roughly 2,200 inmates in Santa Rita have some interaction with the mental-health services, but the jail does not have 24-hour mental-health coverage. Its staff includes only five psychiatrists and 12 mental-health clinicians and it can take weeks for inmates to receive treatment.

The class-action lawsuit alleges that suicidal inmates are often placed in “safety cells,” rooms with no furnishings except for a door and a grate on the floor that’s used as a toilet. Inmates placed 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 the cells get progressively dirtier the longer they’re in there, the lawsuit alleges.

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

The sheriff’s office has sought to improve access to mental-health care and is constructing a new building at Santa Rita to be devoted to mental-health services.

Yet the jail’s for-profit medical provider, Wellpath, may also shoulder some responsibility for the lack of access to necessary services. The company was formed in a merger between the sheriff’s office’s medical provider at the time, California Forensic Medical Group, and another for-profit provider of medical services at jails and prisons, Correct Care Solutions. Last year, California Forensic Medical Group was sued in a class-action lawsuit alleging systemic failures to provide adequate medical care at Santa Rita. Yet when the sheriff’s office closed the aging Glen Dyer Jail in June, Wellpath cut medical staff, despite promises by Sheriff Gregory Ahern that there would be no layoffs.

The Sacramento Bee newspaper reported in 2015 that over a 10-year period, jails contracting with CFMG had a rate of suicide and drug overdoses 50 percent higher than in other county jails in California. At least three county grand juries had criticized wits role in inmate deaths.

The jail population in Santa Rita has declined substantially in recent years. There were 3,301 inmates in Alameda County jails in 2014, compared to just 2,581 in 2018. And while deaths in Alameda County’s jails hit a seven-year low of four last year, there already have been six in 2019.