Found dead after finding freedom: the dangers of late-night jail release
Lawmakers are considering a bill that would give inmates the option to be released during the day. The measure was introduced after Jessica St. Louis was found dead outside a BART station hours after being released from an Alameda County jail late at night last July.
Benita Turner remembers the day Jessica St. Louis moved in with her family in Discovery Bay. It was just before Christmas in 2009, and Jessica was a vivacious sixteen year old.
“She was just bubbly, and high spirited,” Benita remembers. “Just the most beautiful smile.”
Jessica had moved to the United States from Haiti when she was seven, and went into foster care in middle school. Benita remembers being warned not to get too attached when Jessica was placed into her home.
“And I was like, ‘No, she’s going to be with me forever,’” Benita says. “We were like kindred spirits.”
They were both born in June. They were both Geminis. Both of their moms had died when they were four years old. “That’s why I wanted to be the final stop for her,” Benita says. “To let her know, ‘This is your home. This is a safe place for you to land.’”
Released in the dark
But despite Benita’s best efforts, Jessica’s life was not easy. As an adult, she struggled with addiction. She got in trouble with the law, and was arrested for minor crimes, like stealing a bike and taking power tools from a Home Depot. She spent almost two weeks at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin last July.
When she was let out of jail, It was roughly 1:25am. She walked over a mile to the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station. Trains weren’t running for another four hours, and Jessica never made it on. Instead, she overdosed on heroin and fentanyl. It’s not clear how or when she got hold of those drugs. Her body was found in front of BART that morning.
“It shook us to the core,” Benita says. “I have her ashes sitting in my living room.”
Benita says Jessica could still be alive if jail officials had released her during daylight hours. Instead, Jessica was let out when most services were closed and no one was around to help her.
“I can’t imagine she was in such a rush to get out that she wanted to walk a mile in the dark by herself to the BART station with no money to get on BART, no phone to contact anyone,” Benita says.
A bill to change release practices
Now Benita is pushing for a bill sponsored by State Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley). It would give inmates more choice about when they’re discharged. The bill would allow them to stay up to 16 hours after their scheduled release time. That way, they can be let out during the day.
But some law enforcement groups oppose the bill, saying it’s too costly, difficult to manage, and that it could keep inmates in custody longer than needed.
Sergeant Ray Kelly is a spokesperson with the Alameda County sheriff’s department.
Ray says the bill isn’t necessary. He says released inmates are already welcome to stay here in the jail lobby as long as they want.
“But we don’t have a lot of people taking us up on that offer,” Ray says. “They don’t want to stay in jail one minute past the time that they have to.”
“Your first walk to freedom”
We walk outside down the ramp where Jessica walked the night she was released.
“That walk is kind of your first walk to freedom. When you get to the bottom of that ramp, you have to figure out where you’re going to go,” Ray says.
It’s sunny, and a man is mowing the already perfectly manicured lawn. It feels almost idyllic outside the jail during the day. But Jessica was released long after the sun went down. And Dublin is the kind of sleepy suburb that can make you feel alone at night.
“You have to ask herself, ‘When she walked out the front door of that door, where did we let her down? What made her want to go out that door and immediately use?” Ray says.
Addiction behind bars
Ray says Jessica would have been vulnerable whenever she left the jail, no matter the time of day. Recently released inmates in the United States are about 40 times more likely to die from a heroin overdose than the general population.
“The longer you’re in custody, your tolerance level goes down. Your mind is still addicted at the level you’re at before you left,” Ray explains. “And in her case, that was likely fatal for her.”
Ray admits that jails could do more to get inmates with addiction the help they need. Like almost every other jail in the country, Santa Rita doesn’t offer medication for people addicted to opioids. And once inmates do make it out, there are other barriers to treatment, like finding insurance that covers addiction, or doctors trained to treat it.
“It’s easy to point your fingers on the sheriffs office for a lot of failures that happen in society, and blame us because we’re the last people to have contact with that person,” Ray says.
The beginning of what people need
Soon after Jessica’s death, the Alameda County sheriff’s department began offering inmates released from jail narcan, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. But people like Victoria Folks say that still falls short.
“We’re not making sure that people have what they need. And I just don’t know that a BART ticket and some Narcan is going to get us there,” Victoria says.
Victoria was Jessica’s 7th grade teacher at a school in San Rafael. She also became her foster mom for a time. She supports the bill to limit late night releases, and says she still doesn’t understand why anyone needs to be released at midnight.
But she agrees that the story of what went wrong for Jessica did not begin the night she was let out of Santa Rita. Jessica dealt with trauma since she was very young. Both her biological parents died before she turned sixteen. Victoria remembers how Jessica, even as a kid, felt pressure to act tough and take responsibility for circumstances that weren’t her fault.
“We don’t do a good job as a community, as a society, making sure kids know that whatever happens to them is not their fault,” Victoria says. “I feel like those are wounds that sometimes never go away.”
Abuse and instability
In the years before her death, Jessica’s life was rocked by more hurt and instability. Court records show that in 2014, Jessica filed a restraining order against the father of her child. He had violently assaulted her. But the restraining order failed to protect Jessica. The next year, that same man broke into her home through her bedroom window.
“If you don’t have a place where you feel safe, then how does that impact the choices that you make after that?” Victoria says. “We can’t look at just addiction. What’s the circle around all of that?”
The circle around all that, Victoria says, is lined with multiple systemic failures. And at the center of that circle is Jessica, who didn’t get the help she needed, even when she asked for it.
What Jessica would want
Last June, Jessica called Victoria from jail. Jessica said she wanted to get better. That was the last time they talked. Jessica overdosed and died a few weeks later.
After her death, Victoria opened a letter in the mail addressed to Jessica.
It showed that Jessica had applied for a rehab program, but she was denied access because she takes mental health medication. Now it’s been nearly a year since her death. Victoria still thinks a lot about what Jessica would want.
“Jessica didn’t want other people to be hurt, or to go through hurt, or to have experiences that were similar to hers,” Victoria says.
Victoria is not an activist. She is not on the frontlines of the opioid crisis. But she is an educator. She works with teachers to help young girls in the classroom to feel safe, and like they belong. And she thinks a lot about Jessica, and she misses her friend.
“She knew me better than a lot of people know me. I miss that. I miss her,” Victoria says, her voice cracking.