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“Nothing Has Changed”: Four Dead in Six Weeks at California County’s “Deadliest Jail”

by Kevin W. Bliss

On February 28, 2022, Candice “Cody” Vanburen became the fourth person to die in just six weeks at the Santa Rita Jail (SRJ) in California’s Alameda County. Now prisoner rights advocates fault the county’s Board of Supervisors for refusing to hold the office of Sheriff Yesenia Sanchez accountable.

Vanburen, 33, served a two-year sentence at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla for felony vehicle theft before a transfer to SRJ on February 27, 2023, to begin post-release community supervision. Just 16 hours later, the non-binary prisoner was found unresponsive in their cell during a routine wellness check, suffering what proved to be a fatal overdose of fentanyl. Vanburen was rushed to a hospital, but doctors were unable to resuscitate them.

During intake at SRJ, Vanburen had admitted to drug use. Yet Sheriff Sanchez stated that the records showed “no cause for concern” in Vanburen’s health. Now several activist groups – the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Oakland Rising, Urban Peace Movement and Human Impact Partners – have joined together to incriminate the facility for its abusive nature and excessive number of deaths.

“We are heartbroken and enraged to hear of yet another death related to [SRJ], the deadliest place in Alameda County,” read a statement released by the group. “For years, advocates have called out the level of abuse, neglect, death, and cruel punishment inside [SRJ]. We have stood alongside families who have lost loved ones at the hands of the Alameda County Sheriffs Office [ACSO] and called for transparency, diversion, and accountability – yet these calls have been met with silence.”

Before Vanburen’s death, Elizabeth Laurel, 39, died after being found unresponsive in her cell on February 13, 2022. Her cause of death is still under investigation, but she had been booked into the jail on suspicion of possessing a controlled substance. Charles Johnson, 45, died at a hospital in Pleasanton on February 4, 2022, after suffering a medical emergency at the jail two days earlier. On January 17, 2022, Stephen Lofton, 39, died in a suspected suicide at the jail. All four deaths have occurred in the first two months since Sanchez took over ACSO.

With these four, SRJ has recorded 66 deaths since 2014. The campaign for sheriff in 2022 featured promises to focus on revision of jail policies. “Alameda County voters hoped the election of Sheriff Yesenia Sanchez would bring meaningful change to SRJ,” stated members of the activist groups. “But the death of Cody and three others in six weeks alone tells us that nothing has changed.”

Sources: KTVU, Pleasanton Weekly

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