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What’s Going on With the Santa Cruz County Jail?

One week after Covid-19 outbreak, a look at inmate deaths and other controversies at the county’s main correctional facility

The family of Tamario Smith, a Santa Cruz County inmate who died at the jail, gathered in front of the jail in June. PHOTO: MAT WEIR

On May 10, Tamario Smith spent all but four hours alone in the single-person cell he had requested in the Santa Cruz Main Jail on Water Street. Smith, who had been in the jail for four months, left his cell to get a haircut. Video surveillance footage showed him in good spirits, according to a report from the Santa Cruz County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office. 

Other aspects of his behavior came across as more peculiar. A fellow inmate later reported that Smith said he was thinking of drinking cleaning fluid “to clean out his stomach,” and he also filled up a bottle with pink liquid from the mop bucket, according to footage. A diagnosed schizophrenic, Smith was responding to hallucinations he heard talking to him, according to the report. 

It was Mother’s Day, and at 5:52pm, correctional officers found him face down in a pool of watery, odorless vomit during a routine check. Little is known surrounding Smith’s death, which was ruled a sudden cardiac arrest due to hyponatremia, or low sodium—an electrolyte imbalance from overconsumption of water. Smith’s family and their attorney have doubts about the official cause of death and have been trying to get more information out of Sheriff Jim Hart’s office.

Tamario’s mother Felicia Smith says her son had hoped to one day be a foster counselor because of a stint he spent in the foster care system. Those who knew Tamario, she says, remember him as a music lover, a beautiful singer and a loyal guardian to his twin sister.

“Even though he and Tamia were only 10 minutes apart, he felt like he had to be the protector over her and the other siblings,” Felicia says with a sigh. “He had a big heart.” 

The death of Tamario Smith, a Santa Cruz County inmate, coincided with Black Lives Matter protests in the spring. PHOTO: MAT WEIR

JAIL FORCE

Tamario, who was Black, died two weeks before Minnesota man George Floyd was choked to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

Although the circumstances were different, Tamario’s death resonated across Santa Cruz County partly because it coincided with a national reckoning around human rights and inequities in the criminal justice system that erupted in the wake of Floyd’s death. For critics of the correctional system and of Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart, the incident fit a familiar theme—one that predates Hart’s tenure as the county’s highest-ranking law enforcement official. Before Hart’s 2015 swearing-in, the Santa Cruz Main Jail saw five inmate deaths over 11 months between 2012-2013. For a soon-to-be-filed federal complaint against the county, the Smith family has two lawyers—partners Jonathan Gettleman and Elizabeth Caballero. The two defense attorneys have been involved in a few cases against the county, also helping to represent the family of Amanda Sloan, who died at the jail in 2013, netting a $1 million settlement.

Hart says he made changes, including implementing a new treatment program and installing a body scanner. 

The rate of deaths has fallen since the particularly bad stretch before Hart took office. But since fall 2019, there have been four more deaths: Tamario’s death, two suicides and a homicide. 

Meanwhile, there have been other issues as well.

For starters, correctional officers have recently been getting arrested on felony charges. One was arrested and convicted in 2018 for sexual relations with an inmate. Three other correctional officers have been arrested since September—two on a variety of felony charges, including sex with inmates, and a third for domestic violence and robbery charges. Hart, who’s running for reelection in 2022, fired all three officers. Also, the Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury has released investigations into local correctional facilities in six of the past eight years—on everything from a power failure at the jail to inmate safety and health care. 

On top of that, 10 correctional officers tested positive Covid-19 in the last week, likely in connection with a large, unsanctioned party that happened over Thanksgiving weekend. Hart says his office is still investigating the circumstances surrounding the gathering, but he feels confident that contact tracers have identified all staff in attendance. He says he doesn’t yet know where the party was or who else attended.

He calls the party “a mistake,” but it’s one that he compares to errors in judgement made by politicians across the country who have taken heat for personally flouting social distancing guidelines.

“We’re in month nine of this pandemic. The community in general is getting tired and mistakes are being made,” he says. 

BAR WITNESS

The string of controversies at the jail this year began with Smith’s death. After jail employees saw him responding to auditory hallucinations early in the year, a jail psychologist diagnosed him with schizophrenia and substance abuse in February. The courts determined him unfit for trial a month later. 

Officers had arrested Smith in January for a probation violation following a domestic violence arrest. In the weeks before he died, Tamario was seen by medical staff at least twice. The first was at his request on April 21, after complaining of a headache. He was noticeably perspiring. But with his vital signs looking normal, he was diagnosed with dehydration and was advised to drink at least five cups of water a day. 

Tamario’s second request came one week later, on the morning of April 28, when nurses handing out medication noticed he displayed a lack of motor skills, particularly in his right arm. Once again, they took his vitals and after a while, he appeared to be acting normal, so they thought nothing of it. However, the symptoms he displayed can be signs of hyponatremia, notes defense attorney Jonathan Gettleman. Along with his partner Elizabeth Caballero, Gettleman is representing the Smith family in an upcoming federal complaint for a lawsuit against the county. Surveillance footage from the day he died shows him filling up his water cup several times, according to the autopsy report, Gettleman says.

“That is a devastating failure of basic standards of medical and institutional conduct. Where is the accountability?” he asks. 

Felicia says she didn’t hear of Tamario’s diagnosis with schizophrenia until June 18, when the coroner’s office called her with Tamario’s cause of death. 

“They told me all this that morning. I was in shock,” she remembers.  

Felicia found the timing of the information release odd, as it came out the same day that activists were going to march in Tamario’s name and demand accountability. She believes Hart was strategically trying to deflect a mounting sense of frustration aimed at his leadership.

Hart says that wasn’t his intention, and that there was nothing calculated about the release.

“We received the results from the coroner, and we put the information out there. It certainly was not meant to show any disrespect to Mr. Smith or to his family,” he says.

With much of the country still in the midst of civil unrest following Floyd’s death, protesters still took to the streets that evening, toting signs that asked, “What Happened to Tamario Smith?” Six months later, signs displaying Tamario’s name still sit in front of the downtown clock tower, a quarter of a mile from the jail, along with pictures and chalk-written messages on the sidewalk.

Some unanswered questions remain about what exactly happened May 10.

Felicia remembers, prior to the autopsy’s official release, a sheriff’s office employee calling her and mentioning, “We don’t know if he could’ve gotten into some cleaning products laying around.”

Felicia explains, “My niece took the phone and asked, ‘You think he got into some cleaning products?’ They responded, ‘We don’t know, he could’ve.’”

The autopsy notes that there is the video of Tamario scooping out a cup of liquid from a mop bucket. However, the responding pathologist Dr. Stephany Fiore wrote in Smith’s autopsy report that “none of his behavior seemed alarming.”

Gettleman, for his part, says he was particularly alarmed by something else. 

“What’s alarming to me is they didn’t test the contents of his stomach at all,” he says. 

He and Caballero found a lab at UC San Francisco that was willing to analyze the contents, but without a judge’s order, the Sheriff’s Office has refused to hand over the sample. Gettleman says they’ve asked the jail to preserve the stomach’s contents, but the sheriff’s office has not turned anything over.

“They won’t give us any information unless compelled by the judicial system,” he explains.

When asked, Hart won’t tell GT whether his office bothered to test Tamario’s stomach—or whether his office still has the contents on file.

Citing pending litigation, Hart says he won’t comment on the Tamario Smith case or ones like it.

Gettleman and Caballero—who are also husband and wife—believe Sheriff Hart’s strategy is to try and keep a low profile, hoping his office’s controversies stay out of the public sphere.

“It’s very troubling,” Caballero says. “It demonstrates a lack of oversight and a culture of lawlessness that exists there.” 

Hart says talk about a culture problem is all hyperbole to him. Although he says the Main Jail’s 40-year-old age comes with challenges, he feels it’s well-managed. 

“The jail is very organized,” he says.

Partners in business and in life, local attorneys Jonathan Gettleman and Elizabeth Caballero say the county should create a new committee to manage oversight of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office and the jail. PHOTO: TARMNO HANNULA

CONCRETE EXAMPLES 

The county’s correctional system, which also includes the Rountree Medium Facility and the Blaine Street Women’s Facility, has dealt with broader concerns as well.

Two challenges that have dogged the sheriff’s office for years are its limited personnel and high rate of vacancies. Those factors prompt sheriff leadership to force officers into serving mandatory overtime, as noted in the Grand Jury’s 2018-2019 Detention Facilities Inspection Report.

Hart says it continues to make things difficult, although the outlook has improved.

“Earlier this year we were at 100% full staffing,” he states. “Now we have nine vacancies and some mandatory overtime, but nothing like it was before March.” 

With 17 officers currently out on leave due to either a positive Covid-19 test or isolating in quarantine from possible exposure to the disease, the limited workforce has created a new strain. But Hart says his office was able to fill all the hours with voluntary, not mandatory, overtime this time.

Over the years, the facility has also often seen crowding, partly exacerbated by broader reforms at the state level that pushed criminals out of state prisons. To offset the shift, local jails, like Santa Cruz County’s, expanded their Custody Alternative Programs, placing more inmates under house arrest with ankle monitors. Still, according to the 2018-2019 Detention Facilities Inspection Report, it recently had a daily average of 375 inmates. That’s 17.5% above the jail’s official capacity of 319.

Recently, that trend has reversed, however. Due to the pandemic, the jail’s population is down to 227 inmates, at 71% capacity. 

In accordance with state policy, the jail has been turning away everyone except serious and violent offenders. In light of Covid-19, the jail has been taking special precautions for people age 65 and older. 

In a year when Covid-19 has turned many jails and prisons across the country into humanitarian disasters, the county’s correctional system has still yet to have its first Covid-19 case among the inmate population.

FAIL CELL

Inmate German Carrillo was allegedly strangled to death by his two cellmates, likely from behind, on Oct. 12, 2019. 

The cell was originally intended for two people but overcrowding found Carrillo taking the makeshift bed. Both of his cellmates were known violent criminals, Caballero says. 

His body was on its right side of the cell, facing the wall and covered with a blanket, according to his autopsy. Fibers found in his teeth suggest he was gagged. Although asphyxiation was the cause of death, he had four puncture wounds in his abdomen that didn’t break through the muscle layer. Bruises and abrasions riddled his body from his face to his knees. 

Carrillo’s exact time of death is unknown because his body was not discovered until more than 36 hours later on the morning of Oct. 14, despite being in bed the entire time. Dr. Fiore was once again the responding pathologist and in her report noted “a rectangular piece of brown fabric” was attached to the inside of the cell door along the lower border of the window, partially obstructing outside visibility.  

The jail is supposed to have an emergency button in each cell to allow inmates to call for help. 

In a complaint filed against Santa Cruz County, Sheriff Hart and a chief deputy, Caballero and Gettleman claim that many of the emergency buttons inside the Main Jail cells are non-operational. The complaint also asserts the buttons “have not worked for so long” that inmates no longer rely on them, a fact well known to staff and any inmate looking for a fight, it says. 

A correctional officer who spoke to GT on the condition of anonymity confirms that the problem of broken emergency buttons goes back to 2014. 

“Possibly even longer,” he says, estimating 30-40% of the buttons are currently broken. 

Hart denies that problem, saying that, as far as he knows, all the emergency buttons are working.

As with Smith’s death, there are a lot of unknown factors around the murder of Carrillo. 

“There is a protective order in that case, too,” Caballero says. “So getting access to those records is virtually impossible.”

She and Gettleman recently filed a wrongful death complaint in court against Hart and the county on behalf of the Carrillo family. 

When asked why a protective order is in place, Hart says the matter was not his jurisdiction. 

“That’s something you’re going to have to ask the County Attorneys,” he says. “That’s out of my hands.”

District Attorney Jeff Rossell’s office did not return an email seeking comment for this story.

COURTING DISASTER

At 24 years old, Carrillo had already spent more than a quarter of his life behind bars, between the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall and the Main Jail, for allegedly aiding and abetting a 2013 homicide—a crime he swore until his death that he didn’t commit. He was scheduled to appear in court this past January. 

Caballero says Carrillo, then 17, was basically in the wrong place at the wrong time. It started when Caballero was playing handball with several school friends in 2013. 

Two of those friends, who ended up being Carrillo’s co-defendants in a murder case, were Norteno gang members. Carrillo, on the other hand, had no gang tattoos and before his arrest he had no prior gang associations or criminal record, Caballero says. She says Carrillo rode with his friends to a convenience store, where the friends saw an adversary of theirs, who they started arguing with. A fight broke out, and the other young man got stabbed, but Caballero says security footage showed Carrillo running separately from the murder suspects, and there was no direct link to Carrillo as the stabber, he says. 

Despite this, he remained in pre-trial detention for six years. 

During that time, Carrillo’s sister Tania says he got his GED diploma, took college courses, and was helping other inmates further their education. She says at the time of his death he was working on a paralegal degree. 

Correctional officers placed Carrillo in a remote wing of the jail, where inmates must stay locked up for 23 hours a day and where the security buttons didn’t work, according to Gettleman and the complaint. 

According to protocol, inmates must be checked on every hour, and the responding officer must mark it in a log. People must be seen breathing and officers must see an individual’s skin, like their face or their head. That clearly didn’t happen.

Tania notes that the guards didn’t try to rouse her brother for his 5am shower. “Or at 8am for breakfast, or later for dinner,” she says, “or for his break when he would call us.” 

The Carrillo complaint alleges that his body was only discovered because of the “overwhelming” stench coming from his cell.

“It’s the jail’s responsibility to care for individuals in their custody,” Gettleman says. 

OVERSEE HERE

Although Hart faces criticism, he has gained defenders over the years, including when it comes to liberal causes like immigration. 

Three years ago, Hart stuck his neck out to become the first law enforcement official to endorse a state sanctuary bill forbidding many state agencies from assisting in immigration investigations and enforcement. Hart also wrote a letter in support of the bill, which then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law that year. After it took effect, Hart changed protocols, easing off certain policies and halting cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) altogether. 

Nonetheless, Gettleman and Caballero argue that, along with systematic change, the sheriff’s office would benefit from some new oversight. 

They note that such a change could soon be possible, thanks to Assembly Bill 1185, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law this past September. 

The new law allows counties to create new oversight committees that would be armed with subpoena power, in order to keep an eye on their local sheriff’s offices. In cases like Tamario’s and Carrillo’s, this would mean easier access for their families and attorneys to any information that the sheriff’s office could be sitting on. 

A county board of supervisors can create such a committee—as can a county’s voters, via a ballot measure. But it isn’t a sure thing.

None of the county supervisors were aware of AB 1185 before hearing from GT

When asked, however, incoming 1st District Santa Cruz County Supervisor Manu Koenig says he would be open to exploring the idea. Current county supervisors Bruce McPherson, Greg Caput and Ryan Coonerty don’t think such a committee is necessary, adding that they think Hart’s doing a pretty good job. Supervisor Zach Friend says he would have to learn more about the new law, and outgoing 1st District Supervisor John Lepold did not respond to our requests, other than to say he’s been busy with nonstop meetings the past several days.

In general, Supervisor Friend lauds the sheriff’s office for preventing Covid-19 from entering the system’s inmate population. The correctional system, he says, is an area where understandably no one gets credit for their successes because every slipup can be tragic. Friend, a former spokesperson for the Santa Cruz Police Department, says that counties everywhere are generally in need of a combination of criminal justice reforms—ones for law enforcement, for the courts and for their correctional facilities. 

Friend says it isn’t always easy to pinpoint exactly where a failure has happened when tragedy strikes. “We’ve got a long way to go as a country to reimagine how this system works,” he says. 

Hart, for his part, says he doesn’t think a new committee would be necessary.

Between the state and the county, Hart believes his office currently has the appropriate level of oversight. But if the county created a new committee, Hart stresses that the decision isn’t his to make. If the county created a new committee, his department would certainly cooperate.

As it stands, Gettleman and Caballero are working to build a coalition of community members, businesses and nonprofits to raise awareness for AB 1185 and the potential it creates for change and increased transparency.

“One of the big problems we have now is there’s no information reaching the public about any of this,” Gettleman says. “And because that’s the case, the sheriff always has the advantage to put their spin on whatever happens, so they don’t look like the responsible party.”  

Contributor at Good Times |

Mat Weir originally hails from Southern California but don't hold that against him. For the past decade he has reported on the Santa Cruz music scene and has kept the reading public informed on important community issues such as homelessness, rent hikes, addiction and social injustices. He is a graduate from UCSC, is friends with a little dog name Ruckus and one day will update his personal page, WeirdJournalism.com.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Please help

    December 22, 2020 at 3:35 pm

    Please someone help me my wife is currently incarcerated at Santa Cruz jail, she needs medical attention and the staff just ignores her. She has had extreme difficulty breathing and needs to see a doctor. (I wonder how thorough the inspection for a gas leak was.) Please someone tell me who can I contact for this type of emergency. I called 911 but apparently they didn’t let paramedics through the jail to see her. If anyone has any advice please contact me.

  2. Former Correctional Officer

    December 22, 2020 at 3:10 pm

    J Mith, its true I worked as a Correctional Officer at the Santa Cruz Jail. The Department has a bad culture. Many Officers have left. 3 Officers were recently fired. 2 of them had sexual activities with inmates. The other was arrested for domestic violence.
    The Jail is extremely overcrowded and the long shifts make it hard for Officers to stay.
    Sheriff Hart was never around the jail. He never bothered getting involved or offered resolutions to a high employee turnover rates.
    Some Officers were extremely difficult to work with especially the ones on DayShift. This caused for Officers to only work graveyard.
    The Officers in charged of running the jail dont really know how to operate it.
    Favoritism is another key issue fast forward to today they are in a furlough.

  3. J. Mith

    December 15, 2020 at 4:24 pm

    Jane, don’t you think the people the Sheriff’s Office serves deserve to know about the issues that have been plaguing the department for years now? The public does not know what happens behind the walls of the jail. Sheriff Hart does not even know what is happening at his own facilities. He is so disconnected from the workings of the jail. A friend of mine worked there and would tell me stories of how morale amongst officers was low and a lot were so unhappy with the way the jail ran. A lot of people have left within the past few years because they could not take it anymore. Most people on a shift have been working there for less than five years because their retention rate is so low. Hearing from her made me worry about the kind of “care” that people were actually getting in there.

    It’s a wonder how long it took for something like this to be published. Thank you for bringing these issues to the public’s eye.

  4. NSC

    December 11, 2020 at 10:43 pm

    How does a situation like either of these happen? German Carrillo’s story reminds me of Kalief Browder. I think we have a good sheriff’s department, but these stories are disturbing and clearly there are some problems that need to be addressed.

    How does one stay in jail *6 years* PRETRIAL? I didn’t even know that was a thing.

  5. joey

    December 11, 2020 at 8:24 pm

    The citizens that pay the salaries of cops have had enough!!!! As long as cops keep assaulting and killing civilians we the people KEEP ON TOP of these stories.

    Cops are a criminal syndicate, who controls the cops?????
    jane doe, you are probably white and did not live in a poor neighborhood

  6. John Doe

    December 9, 2020 at 2:06 pm

    Jane, did you even read the article. And honesty, really Jane?

  7. Jane Doe

    December 9, 2020 at 9:18 am

    Don’t you think Law Enforcement has been through enough this year without our local paper ragging on them too? This article is incredibly disappointing.

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