Going to jail is stressful enough, but imagine how much that can be compounded if you’re held in what’s been referred to as “the worst” or “meanest” jail in America. That would be the Sacramento County Jail downtown on I Street across from the Federal Building. It’s a small wonder that the imposing facility, which constantly gets recommended for improvement by everyone from the county grand jury to federal court judges, withstood a spate of suicides five years ago. Inmates were truly dying to get out of there.
For you hang-’em-and-let-God-sort-’em-out types who think that is a good thing, keep in mind that we’re talking about jail, not prison. The presumably guilty get sent to the latter. Many folks in jail are awaiting trial and therefore must be considered innocent until proven guilty by their peers—despite what cops, prosecutors or daily funny papers are telling you before that judgment has been passed. Others are serving light sentences. Or they could not afford a fine. Or proper defense. In other words, any one of you reading this could easily find yourself haunting those nightmarish corridors. The experience literally could drive you crazy enough to consider offing yourself.
Amy Yannello was given what is for local journalists on the right side of the law some rare tours of the county jail. Horror stories about the place were rampant. Yannello knew not what to expect. But the tours were remarkably open and candid. And, at least with the media in tow, guards did not bark orders, look for any opportunity to crack heads, nor clank nightsticks against metal. She was allowed to talk with inmates, psychiatric personnel and Sheriff’s Department jailers. She took meticulous notes of everything she saw and pored over reams of documents. From all that came a ray of hope, in the form of today’s cover story, which shows that by re-examining their approach to the mentally ill and inmates in general, the county jailers and psychiatric-services employees have prevented suicides, created a safer environment and set the groundwork for parolees to get help on the outside.
Who knows? Maybe they’ll re-examine everything they do on I Street. We can only dream.