It was around 1:30 a.m. on the morning of July 28 when sheriff deputies at Santa Rita Jail — the largest facility in California — opened the gates and let 26-year-old Jessica St. Louis out onto the street. She’d spent 11 days in custody for minor crimes, including theft. But when she was released in the middle of the night, she immediately became a target. The jail is fairly remote, surrounded by industrial campuses and open pastures. It’s a 40-minute walk from the East Dublin BART Station, and the first train doesn’t roll through until 5 a.m.
Sometime in the four hours after she was released from jail St. Louis died of what appears to be a drug overdose. Her body was found around 5:30 a.m. near the passenger pick-up area by BART authorities. Initial reports described a large lump on her head, and in the wake of the brutal killing of Nia Wilson, the media questioned whether another young, Black woman had been killed near the transportation network. It was later determined that St. Louis hadn’t died from foul play, and it’s likely that if that had been clear up front her story would have received little to no press outside of the recent spate of BART homicides.
But St.Louis’ death did get lots of coverage, and in the days since she died, activists have hopped on the issue, criticizing Santa Rita Jail for its all-hours release policy.
“It was a death sentence to release Jessica in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere,” said Jessica Nowlan, the executive director of the Young Women’s Freedom Center. “To send vulnerable system-involved women and girls into the streets at night, without access to support or even public transportation, is an act of violence.”
While the issue of releasing a young woman into the night is certainly critique-worthy, there’s another way in which Santa Rita Jail failed St. Louis, and continues to fail other inmates: They have turned down repeated requests to distribute Narcan, an opiate overdose medication, to at-risk inmates with their belongings when they leave the jail. It’s a lifesaving drug that last year alone reversed more than 1,200 overdoses just in San Francisco.
Sometime between walking away from Santa Rita Jail and arriving at BART St. Louis appears to have obtained drugs. Presumably having been sober for at least 11 days while in custody, she was at a high risk of an overdose. Her family is fundraising for a memorial service to be held on Monday.
“We are shocked and saddened by this turn of events but we also want to say goodbye to her in a way that celebrates the generous and loving person she was,” says her foster mom, Victoria Folks.
Inmates who have a history of using drugs are at an extremely high risk of overdosing once they’re released. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health states that the risk of a fatal heroin overdose in the two weeks after a person has been released from jail is 74 times that of the general population. The vulnerability of formerly-incarcerated individuals is something harm reduction workers have been aware of for years, and since 2013 San Francisco’s County Jails has partnered with the Drug Overdose Prevention and Education (DOPE) Project to distribute Narcan to those exiting the system, warning them that their tolerance may have lowered while they were in custody.
”Since 2013, the DOPE Project has placed 594 naloxone kits in the property of individuals leaving the County Jail who are either at risk of overdose or who may be in a position to revive a friend or family member once they leave,” says Eliza Wheeler, the overdose response strategist at the Harm Reduction Coalition.
But Santa Rita Jail has not been amenable to creating a similar program, even when the drug is offered to them for free. Savannah O’Neil, an overdose prevention expert who works at the HIV Education Prevention Project of Alameda County, has given five presentations to groups that work in the jail trying to get the Narcan program off the ground.
“Santa Rita is huge in comparison in S.F.’s jail,” O’Neil says.“We wanted to start small.”
The jail houses around 4,000 inmates at any given time, but it’s easy to figure out where to start: One specific section of the jail specifically houses people with substance abuse issues. Issuing them Narcan as they’re released was O’Neil’s first plan. Once that was set up, it could be expanded to anyone who came in with drugs in their system. And as an added perk, all the Narcan would be provided at no charge, thanks to support from the OPEND project, funded by Alameda County Health Care Services Agency.
O’Neil presented the plan and numerous studies to jail health staff in July 2016, to Alameda County Probation staff in July 2017, to the California Forensic Medical Group — a for-profit jail health care company — three times just last fall. Each time, the proposal has fallen flat.
“The main pushback I got was logistical barriers, such as figuring out how to slide it into people’s property, and the staff time, like who’s going to do the Narcan training,” O’Neil says.
But all told, those are pretty minor barriers, especially since O’Neil is aware of three overdose-related deaths just in the last month that occurred hours after people were released from Santa Rita Jail.
In St. Louis’s case, having Narcan on her would not necessarily have saved her life. People who are overdosing are generally unable to administer the drug to themselves, which is why using with a friend is a common harm reduction recommendation. But if you’re let out of jail in the middle of the night, the likelihood of someone being with you when you use for the first time in days is slim.
Cat Brooks, Oakland mayoral candidate and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, slammed Santa Rita Jail for this practice.
“The pattern and practice of jails releasing women in the middle of the night is not a new one. And the demand to end this practice is not a new one. But this must be the final time we make this demand,” she wrote on Facebook. “Jessica is not the first woman to die as a result of this practice. But she must be the last. State law must dictate common sense policy since sheriffs across the state can’t seem to figure it out.”
Brooks wasn’t referring specifically to arming newly-released people with Narcan. But at some point, the jail has to consider how its policies contribute to people’s deaths, in and outside its walls.