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‘They’re inept': Sheriff calls for overhaul of Calif. jail’s healthcare system

6 people, employed by the Sacramento County Jail’s healthcare contractor, have been arrested for smuggling drugs into the jail


Sacramento County Sheriff Jim Cooper speaks about the arrest of Zareonna Harris, a medical assistant assigned to the Main Jail, for smuggling drugs into the jail in exchange for money.

Hector Amezcua

By Theresa Clift
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Following the discovery that a county medical contractor was smuggling fentanyl into the Sacramento County Main Jail, Sheriff Jim Cooper is calling for an overhaul of the jail’s health care system.

“I take responsibility for my deputies — their actions and what they do,” Cooper said during a news conference at the Sheriff’s Office headquarters Wednesday. “This all revolves around jail medical (staff). It’s a big issue. They’re inept. ... I’m at my breaking point.”

The announcement follows a Sheriff’s Office investigation into a spike in overdoses at the jail. The office has now arrested six people for their involvement in an operation to smuggle drugs into the jail in exchange for money. They included Zareonna Harris, who was working on-call for Avid Healthcare Services, a county contractor. Harris is no longer an Avid employee, according to the company.

Harris, along with James Whitfield, Donald Zackery and Tomani Zackery were arrested Aug. 29 and charged with smuggling fentanyl, meth, cocaine and escape tools into the downtown facility. Whitfield was an inmate prior to the incident, while the others were not, Cooper said.

The Sheriff’s Office has subsequently arrested two more people — Roderick Turk and Dimauri Allendandridge — for allegedly supplying the narcotics.

To prevent a similar operation from happening in the future, Cooper, who became sheriff in December, suggested the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors move the management of its jail medical unit, known as Adult Correctional Health, back under the Sheriff’s Office.

The board moved the division’s management from the Sheriff’s Office in 2018, meaning none of the jail’s medical staff fall under the oversight of the inspector general, the Sheriff’s Office internal affairs or the District Attorney’s Office. Cooper said when that change happened, medical employees stopped undergoing extensive Sheriff’s Office-conducted background checks when hired.

While the county employees undergo background checks, contractors conduct their own background checks, and the process is different, according to county spokeswoman Janna Haynes.

“County staff are working with Avid on strengthening its background check process,” Haynes said. The county’s contract with Sacramento-based Avid expires in June 2025.

Haynes said the county’s Adult Correctional Health division has a high standard of medical care.

“Inmates being booked into the Sacramento County Jail have a constitutional right to a standard of medical care, and Adult Correctional Health will not compromise that standard of care,” Haynes said in a statement following the news conference. “Adult Correctional Health looks forward to continuing productive conversations with the Sheriff’s Office on how to improve medical care within the Main Jail.”

Cooper also raised concerns with the routine practice of transporting inmates to the emergency room for minor ailments, such as constipation or a finger cut. Deputies took inmates to hospital ERs 1,800 times last year, he said. Each time, two deputies had to accompany the inmate at the hospital.

“Their method is, when there’s a problem, it’s just easier to send somebody out (to the emergency room),” Cooper said. “That’s not the way you do it”

The county earlier this year conducted an analysis of ER trips and found 85% of them were appropriate, Haynes said.

Cooper suggested the county start using video appointments to cut down on the ER visits, or to employ more nurses in order to do more screening in-house.

The county has doubled its mental health and medical staff since a federal settlement, the result of a class-action lawsuit, was signed in 2019, Haynes said. It now employs 251 full-time medical staff and 129 mental health staff.

But vacancies still exist. As of August, the jail had vacancies for six mental health workers and 25 registered nurses.

“What’s wrong with telemedicine?” Cooper said. “Everyone else is using it. Correctional health is not. They are archaic”

Officers who bring an arrested person to the jail for booking — either deputies or officers from any law enforcement agency in the county — have to wait an average of 2½ hours for the person to be medically screened, Cooper said. That takes time away from them being on patrol.

Haynes said the county has used telemedicine since June and will continue to assess expansion. She said the jail’s $1 billion annex will help with the issue of people waiting hours to get medically screened during booking. But that annex is not set to open until 2028.

So far this year, six inmates have died, all from medical causes. Three of the deaths were suspected drug overdoses — deaths that could have been prevented with adequate monitoring and detoxification, according to a report by two medical professionals tasked with independently monitoring medical care of Sacramento inmates under the settlement known as the Mays Decree.

Several of the inmates who suffered fentanyl overdoses this year survived, Cooper said.

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