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Longtime Bay Area sheriff criticized on jail conditions faces primary defeat

After nearly 16 years in office, Sheriff Greg Ahern appears to have lost the race to keep his Alameda County seat amid years of protests over deadly conditions at one of Northern California’s largest jails.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — After nearly 16 years in office, Sheriff Greg Ahern appears to have lost the race to keep his Alameda County seat amid years of protests over deadly conditions at one of Northern California’s largest jails.

Yesenia Sanchez has proved to be a formidable opponent, and as of a new ballot count Tuesday night held 52.7% of the vote, needing at least 50% to avoid a runoff against Ahern in November. Sanchez, the highest-ranking woman and Latina in the Sheriff’s Office, holds a 21 point lead over her boss, and has claimed victory. 

The voters of Alameda County have spoken: they yearn for a Sheriff who will bring reform, transparency, and accountability to the Office. I hear these calls loud and clear,” Sanchez said in a statement. “As the next Sheriff of Alameda County, I know that I’ve been entrusted with an enormous duty, and I will make our county proud.”

The race has not yet been certified. Ahern, who has 31.5% of votes, released a statement around 5 p.m. Wednesday congratulating Sanchez for her win, adding that he will retire from office Jan 3, 2023 after nearly 43 years of public service.

"I am very proud that I was able to serve as a member of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, in the county where I was born and raised," Ahern said. "It has been my honor and privilege to serve as your Sheriff for the past 16 years."

Sanchez started as a technician under Ahern 25 years ago, and worked as patrol deputy, detective and watch commander, becoming commander at the Santa Rita Jail. She ran on a platform of reforming the Sheriff’s Office and improving transparency and accountability, by expanding mental health and anti-recidivism services, analyzing and publicizing racial disparities and curtailing cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). She also denounced right-wing groups like the Oath Keepers, “white supremacists and other bad apples” and said she supports creating an oversight committee to conduct independent investigations and hold the Sheriff’s Office publicly accountable.

Local newspapers like the East Bay Times endorsed Sanchez, calling for a change in leadership amid ongoing concern “about the deplorable conditions that have festered for years at the county’s Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.” Other endorsers including the Alameda County Democratic Party, state Senators Nancy Skinner and Bob Wieckowski, state Assemblymembers Mia Bonta and Bill Quirk, nearly all of the county’s mayors and various labor unions. 

Sanchez said Wednesday she will begin working with leadership in the office “to ensure a smooth transition and lay the groundwork to implement the reforms promised during the campaign.”

Experts have said the upset of incumbent Ahern is a reckoning of years of accusations of inhumane treatment and corrupt policies at Santa Rita Jail, as the sheriff was criticized for cutting jail staffing and allowing the conditions to continue for years.

Under Ahern, multiple lawsuits alleging mistreatment, inhumane conditions and wrongful deaths of incarcerated people have proliferated. The jail has seen at least 58 inmate deaths since 2014 — including suicides, overdoses and alleged homicides committed by inmates and jail guards. Having started a probe in 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice investigation released last year said they found gross understaffing and lack of mental health counseling, with jail officials showing “deliberate indifference to prisoner health and safety” while suicides occurred at twice the national average. The report found some prisoners with serious mental health needs were confined to cells with no relief for more than five hours out of the week.

The facility is under a six-year oversight per a federal judge’s consent decree, calling for reforming and fixing dangerous conditions and provide inmates with mental heath treatments. 

James King of Ella Baker Center for Human Rights said “It’s virtually unprecedented for an incumbent sheriff to have to go through a runoff. 

“This is very much a referendum on the poor job that Greg Ahern has been doing almost since he came into office,” he said. “It’s also an organic outcry of the frustration that community memes feel when sheriffs who are elected officials do not listen to the community concerns or respond in an appropriate manner.” 

Ahern has also been criticized for his behavior in office. The East Bay Express reported that Ahern, a member of the California Sheriff’s Association, endorsed Jeff Sessions for Attorney General in 2017 under the Trump administration, and allowed extremist white supremacy group the Oathkeepers — whose founder was recently indicted for participation in the Jan. 6 insurrection — to have a table at the Urban Shield weapons and training exposition. Ahern also gave ICE agents access to the jail so they could detain and deport undocumented detainees, according to local source Oaklandside. 

King said Ahern resisted calls from the community for more humane incarceration practices and resisted decarceration in response to Covid outbreaks at the jail.

“I think that voters and community members want elected officials who are responsive to the needs of the community,” King said. “I believe they want sheriffs who understand that incarceration if anything should be a last resort, but that they should instead be doing the work to mitigate immediate harm and make sure families are not disrupted sometime for generations.”

Ella Baker’s organizing director Jose Bernal is skeptical about Sanchez’s ability to reform the office, saying, “The bar has been really, really low for that office.” He said he wants to see Sanchez, if elected, commit to decarceration at the jail and  “seeking effective alternatives to incarceration for people going through the legal system and releasing those who have not been able to make bail due to financial reasons.”

Bernal added, “The fact remains that the Santa Rita Jail is still one of the deadliest jails. The sheriff is still the coroner, even though they have no medical background. The office keeps drawing valuable resources to caging low income Black and Brown folks.”

“Somebody like Sanchez who has been with the department for a very long time … has a lot of work to do."

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