Criminal justice vigil at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.
Attendees of Saturday’s criminal justice vigil outside the Santa Barbara County Courthouse hold up candles and phone flashlights. (Serena Guentz / Noozhawk photo)

Several dozen people gathered in front of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse on Saturday evening to speak out against what they called injustices in jails and to hold a vigil for Jonathan Paul Thomas — who died earlier this month while in custody at the Santa Barbara County Main Jail — and other incarcerated people and their families.

The event, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Santa BarbaraClergy & Laity United for Economic Justice and 14 other local organizations, included music performed by Ejé Lynn-Jacobs, prayers, and speakers such as formerly incarcerated people, families of incarcerated people, clergy and other criminal justice advocates.

“We know when someone is taken into custody, they are taken into care,” the Rev. Julia Hamilton said. “We are here to hold people accountable for their lack of care.”

On Jan. 12, Thomas, 45, died in the Main Jail just a half-hour after being booked.

“Prior to and during the booking process, Thomas made statements about suicide, was deemed a danger to himself, and was escorted to a single-occupant safety cell,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office public information officer Raquel Zick said in a statement that day. “What is clear so far in the investigation is that once inside the safety cell, custody deputies removed Thomas’ clothing, he was placed face down onto the floor of the cell, his handcuffs were removed and custody deputies exited the cell. Minutes later, custody deputies noticed that Thomas was not moving.”

Zick said emergency personnel responded and lifesaving measures were conducted, but Thomas was declared dead.

The cause of death remains unknown, and no further details have been shared by the Sheriff’s Office.

Additionally, a Grand Jury investigation of the suicide of a Main Jail inmate in February 2021 found that the intake process “failed to protect him,” and included several suggestions for improvement in the jail. It was the fifth suicide in the jail since April 2018.

“We’ve come together here in grief and some of us here in anger, and that’s appropriate,” Senior Deputy Public Defender Mark Saatjian said. “The pandemic has opened our eyes to possibilities — the possibilities of transforming our community. … The pandemic also showed that the community can survive with fewer incarcerated people.”

Saatjian noted that, because of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Main Jail’s population dropped to 550 people in spring 2020, nearly 200 fewer than the average population reported in December.

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office Data Dashboard for December, the most current report, also shows that an average of about 72% of inmates were unsentenced at the time.

Criminal justice vigil at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

Ejé Lynn-Jacobs, left, accompanied by Laurence Severance, sings and performs songs about incarceration and redemption during the criminal justice vigil at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse on Saturday evening. (Serena Guentz / Noozhawk photo)

Some of the changes that activists called for to improve criminal justice include a reduction in the jail population; improved risk assessment to determine whether someone should be in jail, in treatment or released; more community-based treatment alternatives; and humane treatment in the jails.

Multiple formerly incarcerated people spoke about their experiences in the Santa Barbara County Jail, such as JP Herrada, program director of Santa Barbara Alternatives to Violence Project, who was incarcerated in 2002 and 2008.

Herrada spoke about how, when he was incarcerated in 2008, he had been diagnosed with diabetes and came in to the jail with his doctor’s documentations and medications. He said he wasn’t able to see a doctor for three months and that he wasn’t given all of his medications or his full dosage of insulin.

“Three weeks after going in, I almost died on the floor of my cell,” Herrada said. “At 1 p.m., I was telling officers that were coming by, ‘I don’t feel good, I can’t move, I’m sweaty, I feel like my insides are shutting down.’… It wasn’t until 3 a.m. when the doctors came in and actually got me out.”

Speakers at the vigil encouraged those wanting to do something to support the cause to make phone calls to county supervisors or city council members.

“Anybody could be a Thomas right here and could be killed inside the carceral system,” said Gilbert Anthony Murillo, initiative chair for UC Santa Barbara’s Underground Scholars. “When you want to talk about justice, you can’t talk about justice when there is injustice within the communities.”

Noozhawk staff writer Serena Guentz can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.