Content warning: police abuse, death
Candice “Cody” Vanburen, 33, was pronounced dead March 1, at Santa Rita Jail.
According to a joint March 6 press release from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Oakland Rising, Urban Peace Movement, Human Impact Partners, Anti Police-Terror Project, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice and TGI Justice Project, Vanburen’s death marks the fourth person to die in custody of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, or ACSO, in the last six weeks.
The other deceased included Elizabeth Laurel, pronounced dead Feb. 13, Charles Johnson, pronounced dead Feb. 4 and Stephen Lofton, pronounced dead Jan. 17.
The joint press release also noted that Vanburen was on his way home and out of incarceration.
Many Alameda County civil rights organizations and advocates are “enraged” by the inaction within the ACSO regarding a history of alleged abuse, mistreatment and death at Santa Rita Jail, or SRJ. They also alleged that the Alameda County Board of Supervisors “fails” to hold the ACSO accountable for more than 60 lives lost in custody over the past 9 years, according to the press release.
“Alameda County voters hoped the election of Sheriff Yesenia Sanchez would bring meaningful change to SRJ, but the death of Cody and three others in six weeks alone tells us that nothing has changed,” the press release reads.
Philip James Kobylarz, who was formerly held at SRJ, alleged that when a “false” restraining order and a subsequent “illegal” warrant were filed against him, he was sent to SRJ twice after his arrest by Union City Police on Nov. 12, 2022.
Kobylarz claimed that at SRJ, he was locked in a cold and windowless “containing cell” with blood and feces on the wall and a “drunk or drugged out man” throwing up inside. Kobylarz also recalled using toilet paper as a blanket to cover a shivering and crying man who was in the cell with him.
He noted that the conditions were unsanitary and that he worried the blood on the walls might be infected. Despite getting his bail paid as soon as possible, Kobylarz claimed he was left in the freezing, filthy cell and that every hour, the officers would play “mental games” with him by bringing him a jail uniform and telling him he would have to change into the uniform and face incarceration.
“I kept telling him no, as I have paid my bail and there was no reason why,” Kobylarz alleged. “This happened 10 times; he kept taunting me, telling me I was for sure jail bound and I was continually threatened with having to enter the jail, of which I was utterly terrified.”
Kobylarz was released Nov. 14, however he claimed that to this day, he continues to suffer from sleep loss and psychological distress due to his experience in carceral institutions such as SRJ.
Kobylarz, who also suffers from severe clinical depression, alleged that his rights were violated and that people with mental disabilities are often disregarded and mistreated at SRJ. Those with mental illness are put into cells with those without illnesses, creating dangerous situations, he said.
“When I was sent to the holding cell in Santa Rita, men were violently thrown into it, derided, yelled at, and treated as if they were animals rather than humans,” Kobylarz alleged, adding that he is “highly traumatized.” “Just like we disregard the homeless in Oakland, Berkeley and everywhere, with people with mental illness who need immediate attention and care, the Santa Rita Jail does the exact same thing. There is no concern for the safety of those detained.”
ACSO public information officer Lieutenant Tya Modeste claims that the ACSO has received no formal complaints related to Kobylarz.
However, this is not the first time that alleged mental health crises and mistreatment at SRJ have raised public concern. Last February, Babu et al. v. County of Alameda et al., a 2018 class action lawsuit, was settled, with the jail placed under a federal monitor until 2028 to reform its treatment of those with mental disabilities and to reduce in-custody mistreatment.
Ernest Galvan, an attorney at Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld, the firm that filed the suit, shared his reaction to the recent deaths.
“When the government takes custody of a person, the officials in charge have a responsibility to look out for the person’s safety and health,” Galvan said in an email. “Jails are the worst places for people in medical and mental health crises. Alameda County, the criminal courts, and the D.A. need to conduct a top to bottom review of incarceration policies.”
While action has been taken to prevent more deaths and mistreatment at SRJ, Galvan noted that the issue is much larger than the jail. The district attorney and the courts must “overhaul” their systems and detain less people, Galvan added.
Alameda County civil rights groups shared similar thoughts on necessary solutions to ameliorate the SRJ and the ACSO.
“We know, and it has been proven that throwing more money and resources at Santa Rita and ACSO is not a solution,” the joint press release reads. “The only solution is to significantly decrease the jail population, divest from the ACSO and SRJ, and put those resources back into the community.”
In response to the press release, Modeste stated that the ACSO is continuing to improve transparency and quality of care, focusing on rebuilding communal trust with civil rights groups. The Ella Baker Center even visited SRJ this week, Modeste added.
Moreover, Modeste noted that the SRJ has implemented Death Reviews as part of their response to in-custody deaths. These review sessions allow for discussions with custodial, medical and mental health staff and aim to provide better care for incarcerated persons.
“The Santa Rita Jail is working with our mental health partners to create therapeutic environments on base that offer a softer look and feel to the traditional jail environment,” Modeste said in the email. “Additionally, we are working to incorporate an ombudsperson and an inmate advisory council to improve fairness, trust, and mutual respect between inmates and staff.”