Late-Night Jail Releases Under Fire

In the wake of Jessica St. Louis’ death at Dublin BART Station, a local senator drafts a ban on late-night releases from California jails.

Kaylie was 18 years old when she was released from a five-day stint in Santa Rita County Jail, on charges that were later dropped. Shortly after midnight, as she was handed her property, she discovered her cell phone battery had died while she was in custody, and she didn’t have change to use the payphone. There was no one in the waiting room, but there was a line of taxis outside.

“I wanted to inquire about a ride back to Oakland, but I was already pretty sure I didn’t have enough money,” Kaylie says. “As I approached the taxis, I began hearing whistling, and heard men saying, ‘C’mere, baby.’ I scanned for a woman driver, but of course there were none. I walked past the taxis and continued down the long sidewalk, barely sure where I was going.”

Kaylie made it home, but Jessica St. Louis, 26, did not. Her body was found at 5:30 a.m. at Dublin BART Station, four hours after she was released in the middle of the night.

Most of the Bay Area’s county jails are located in urban areas, with a bus stop, BART station, all-night diner, or even an old phone booth within walking distance. But the largest of the bunch — Santa Rita Jail, in Dublin — is exceptionally remote. It’s a two-mile, 40-minute walk to the Dublin BART Station, which doesn’t have its first train until 5 a.m. So for inmates who are released at 1 a.m. — a standard practice at the facility — they’re pretty much screwed for at least a few hours, unless they find someone to pick them up in the middle of the night.

But a new bill on the horizon that may change all of this. State Senator Nancy Skinner announced a plan Tuesday to ban late-night releases statewide, in direct response to women who’ve been released during off hours, and the families of people who have died as a result of this activity.

“Tragically, my constituent Jessica St. Louis was taken from us far too soon,” Skinner says. “Releasing a woman in the dead of the night under these circumstances is a recipe for tragedy. People need to be released at a reasonable hour and be given basic support to ensure they can enter our community safely and successfully. I’m pleased to keep partnering with the Young Women’s Freedom Center to craft a bill that ensures safe releases from jail by limiting releases during non-daytime hours and ensuring coordination with supportive services and transportation.”

St. Louis was released around 1:30 a.m. on the morning of July 28. Four hours later, her body was found near the passenger pick-up area of Dublin BART Station. She appears to have died from an overdose, meaning that sometime in that window she somehow obtained drugs and made her way to the station, presumably alone. For those at risk of overdose — and recently released inmates who use drugs are 74 times more likely to overdose than the general population — a solo late-night release is dangerously bad harm-reduction practice.

Santa Rita Jail is remote, with a two-mile walk to the closest BART station.

“Late-night releases are deadly, they’re dangerous,” says Jessica Nowlan, executive director of the Young Women’s Freedom Center. “We know that releasing anyone in the middle of the night not only increases recidivism, but it puts them in immediate danger.”

St. Louis fell into the latter category. 

“It wasn’t that Jessica didn’t have someone to call. She absolutely did,” Benita Turner, her foster mom, says. “The problem was she didn’t have a cell phone. Had she had a cell phone, she would have called her parents, and we would have driven 20 minutes, absolutely, to pick her up. Not only did Jessica have her father and her mother, Jessica had an entire village. We have a huge family. … And Jessica was very loved.”

Criminal justice reform advocates have long regarded late-night releases with suspicion. While the exact number of people who’ve died as a result of this practice is unknown, individual cases have made headlines over the years. St. Louis’ story is the most recent, but the issue dates back much farther. In 2009, 24-year-old Mitrice Richardson was released from a Malibu jail around midnight, after being arrested for not paying her restaurant bill. With her car impounded and no money or cell phone, she had little capacity to find help. She went missing, and her remains were found in a remote ravine a year later. The county paid $900,000 to Richardson’s parents in a wrongful-death settlement.

In 2014, the California Senate approved SB 833, which softly encouraged jails not to do late-night releases — and required them to offer inmates a chance “to stay in the custody facility for up to 16 additional hours or until normal business hours, whichever is shorter.”

While well-intentioned, the bill still absolves jails from the added risk they put upon formerly incarcerated people let out into the night. And while the voluntary option to hang around after release is now present at jails across the state, few former inmates opt to stay longer than absolutely necessary.

If passed, Skinner’s legislation would have a major effect on the way Bay Area jails operate, San Francisco’s included.

Nancy Crowley, director of communications for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, tells SF Weekly that inmates are released at all hours from S.F. jails as well, regardless of whether someone can meet them. But they have made some changes to the process.

“One year ago, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department began offering one-way transportation within a 25-mile radius from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. to newly released individuals,” she says.

In July 2018 alone, 71 individuals used Flywheel taxi company vouchers supplied by the department. In addition, a Discharge Planning Office launched in 2018, offering mobile charging stations, hygiene kits, case management, and referrals to community-based programs for any inmate released between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Late-release changes came too late for St. Louis, but her death has drawn long-overdue attention to the danger of sending people out into the night.

“This issue has been going on for so long, but it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves,” Nowlan says. “We are standing together for our sisters, for each other, to say no more.”

And they’re not just standing. A march from Santa Rita Jail to Dublin BART Station will take place in St. Louis’ honor at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 19. In the meantime, jails will have to start scrambling for a Plan B, as late-night releases may be on the chopping block.

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor. |  @TheBestNuala

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