How the fuck am I going to get home?"
It's about 12:15 a.m. on a Friday morning, and Matthew Page just walked out of the Humboldt County jail. "What am I supposed to do?" the 41-year-old self-described artist and musician asks. "I don't even know Eureka. It's 12:15, and I live in McKinleyville."
Temperatures are in the low 40s. A few cars cruise past the jail on Fifth Street, but it's quiet otherwise. Page says he was picked up about a half mile from his house by a sheriff's deputy just before 8 p.m., arrested for being drunk and violating probation, and booked into jail. Standing under the ochre glow of the streetlights, Page struggles to get his bearings as he sorts through a plastic bag the jail filled with his belongings. He's got a couple bucks — not enough to catch a cab home. The last bus headed north hours ago. He tried to call his roommate, but there was no answer.
"I feel like I'm in the Twilight Zone right now," he says. "I just want to get home."
This is a near-nightly conundrum faced by inmates being released from the Humboldt County jail. In the last month, more than 150 people were released between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. — a cold, lonely time of night when transportation, shelter and other help is in short supply. The practice of releasing people late at night poses more than an inconvenience, it has had tragic outcomes twice in recent months.
So why does the jail release inmates in the middle of the night?
With a rattled community and the benefit of hindsight, what can — and should — be done? Jail officials say they're bound by law to release people when they meet certain criteria — be it midnight or noon. Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey says it would be illegal to hold people arrested for low level offenses longer than necessary, but the American Civil Liberties Union says a jail can hold anyone arrested — no matter how minor the offense — for up to 48 hours before releasing them or filing charges. Looking at the penal codes, it appears open to the discretion of the sheriff's office.
Most everyone agrees: letting people out of jail in the middle of the night is problematic. Humboldt County's social services — drug abuse treatment programs, food and shelter — are closed. The last busses — essential to anyone arrested outside of Eureka who can't get a ride or afford a cab — leave Eureka before 10 p.m., and don't start up again until after 6 a.m. Schedules are even slimmer on weekends. It's particularly troublesome for people brought from the remote reaches of the county, the homeless, the mentally ill and people with drug abuse problems — people whose arrest may leave them in a state of crisis.
Two recent killings have spotlighted the jail's policy of releasing inmates in the early morning hours. Fresh in the minds of local residents is the New Year's Day killing of St. Bernard's Pastor Eric Freed, which authorities allege was perpetrated by Gary Lee Bullock, a Redway man released from jail hours before. Bullock had been arrested by a sheriff's deputy on Dec. 31 and transported 65 miles north to Eureka, where he was later released onto Fifth Street after midnight.
Bullock's case raised questions, particularly because he was contacted multiple times by police and security guards before and after his release. As detailed by the Lost Coast Outpost, multiple people called in to report Bullock's strange behavior on the morning of New Year's Eve. He grew violent after his arrest, according to reports, attempting to kick out the windows of a deputy's car and acting erratically while being booked. He admitted to officers that he'd used methamphetamines and heroin. After a medical exam, Bullock sat in jail for around eight hours before being released. Shortly after that, Eureka police were called to St. Bernard Church, where they apparently directed Bullock toward a homeless shelter and sent him on his way. It's unclear exactly where police directed Bullock — no homeless shelters in the area let people in that late at night, and the only 24-hour drug treatment center is a detox facility run by Eureka's Alcohol Drug Care Services.
Wherever he was directed, Bullock returned to the church and was escorted off the property by a security guard. Police believe he then returned again, broke into the rectory and killed Freed in the early morning hours. After the killing, police say, Bullock stole Freed's car and returned to Redway.
In September, a 33-year-old Eureka man was found bleeding to death from a stab wound just blocks from the jail where he had been released 22 minutes earlier. Police say Joshua Lloyd Burrell was released at 12:38 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, less than five hours after being arrested by Rio Dell police on suspicion of possessing a controlled substance, possessing a narcotic, and violating his parole, according to reports from the Times-Standard. Like Bullock, Burrell was released far from where he was arrested — 25 miles — after intercity buses stopped running for the night. Burrell died of a single stab wound to the upper chest following an apparent fight outside of the Royal Inn, which is located on Fifth Street about two blocks east of the Humboldt County jail.
The problems aren't unique to Humboldt County. In 2011, Mitrice Richardson was found dead in the hills north of Los Angeles — a year after she disappeared following her release from a sheriff's cell after midnight far from her home. Authorities think that Richardson may have been suffering from bipolar disorder, according to the Los Angeles Times, and some criticized the sheriff's office for not holding her for mental health evaluation due to her bizarre behavior before her arrest.
These are extreme and rare examples, but there are more common consequences.
Diana Livingston is the executive director of Crossroads, a Eureka-based drug abuse treatment center that works closely with the jail to release inmates into treatment programs.
"The people we work with are addicts," Livingston said. "What they report is if they get out of jail they can usually find their drug of choice within half an hour. They know where to go and who to talk to."
Despite these issues, Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey says there is little the jail can do. The rules surrounding releases are convoluted, complicated by the state's realignment program, which has made jail overcrowding more problematic for small, rural counties like Humboldt.
Inmates are released for a variety of reasons. Some have completed a sentence, some have posted bail, some are booked and released because the crime they were arrested for is minor or the jail is overcrowded. Others are released under the terms of California code 849(b), which allows jails to release someone if they were arrested for intoxication and "no further proceedings are desirable."
It's clear that releasing people in the wee hours of the night is not an uncommon practice. Between Dec. 26 and Jan. 23, 716 people were released from the jail — including those transferred into state or federal custody. Of those released, 193 were let go between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Forty of those people were released after posting bail or completing a sentence — the kind of release that can give an inmate time to arrange accommodations with friends or family — or were transferred to other facilities. That means more than 150 people were released onto a dark, cold Fifth Street with few options.
Speaking generally last week, Downey said the jail's policy is to hold people arrested for public intoxication for four hours, which he says is a standard policy shared by most county jails in the state. "The main intent — unless it's a habitual offender — is more of a protective custody situation," he said. If a person doesn't appear to be able to care for themselves, the jail has leeway to hold them longer. "And we have. We've held on to people eight, nine, 10, 12 hours."
Del Norte County Sheriff's Office spokesman Bill Stevens said his department shares a similar policy. They hold intoxicated individuals four to six hours, depending on how quickly they sober up. Most people held for public intoxication have a friend or family member pick them up, Stevens said, but "you do have a small percentage of people that just go back into the brush, I guess."
Last week Del Norte County jail personnel transferred a man with "extreme mental health issues" to the Sutter Coast Hospital — a rare measure, Stevens explained, but one that deputies can take when they feel a person is a danger to himself.
Downey insisted that his staff doesn't have the authority to hold people brought in for being intoxicated past sobriety. Even if the jail wanted to enact a policy that, for example, inmates wouldn't be released between midnight and 5 a.m., it wouldn't be legal, Downey said. "We could be opening the county to all sorts of civil rights violations," he said. "Our policy mirrors what we can do legally."
But Will Matthews, senior communications officer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said a sheriff's office has the ability to detain people for up to 48 hours, no matter how minor the cause of arrest. It's not something the ACLU advocates, Matthews said, nor a suggestion to the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office. It's just California law that anyone arrested can be held for 48 hours before they must be charged with a crime or released.
Downey reiterated that charges are almost never brought against someone booked under California code 647(f) — the drunk-in-public law. "We have a responsibility to release them upon the time they exhibit the ability to care for themselves," he said. Even if the jail wanted to hold people until arraignment, the jail's release matrix — an assessment tool designed to make room in overcrowded jails by releasing low level offenders — would recommend releasing 647(f) offenders.
Eureka Councilwoman Melinda Ciarabellini, who oversaw the Humboldt County Jail for more than a decade until 2007, agreed.
"There is some discretion but you have to consider a person's civil and constitutional rights," Ciarabellini said. "Once they become eligible for release, holding them beyond that could present a liability." She didn't recall any policies during her time with the jail that limited the time of day inmates were released.
Public Defender Kevin Robinson said a policy like that would present problems for people who post bail during nighttime hours. In his 25 years defending people, he said he's "never seen any jurisdiction involving people who were not released during all hours of the day." If it's a disorderly conduct arrest, Robinson said, "my understanding is they sober them up in 2-6 hours and release them when they're safe to be released." The arresting agency makes a recommendation for charging to the district attorney, Robinson said, but unless the person is a repeat offender they often end up with no charge.
With no counseling programs open past normal working hours, people struggling with addiction have few places to turn if they're released late at night or early in the morning. "There are emergency crisis lines," said Crossroads' Livingston. "But I don't know that we have anything that's staffed at that time."
Eureka's Alcohol Drug Care Services offers the only program available to people 24 hours a day — a detox center set up for people released due to jail realignment, referred from child welfare services or by walk-in. But the center only offers nine beds — six for men and three for women — and it's typically full. While there's regular turnover, there's also usually a waiting list, making it difficult to find immediate care.
Another option is the jail's lobby. At the end of a long hallway leading from the jail's Fifth Street side, it's the same bright, fluorescent-lit room where the public can check in to visit inmates.
Downey said anyone released from jail is welcome to use the phone and wait in the lobby until morning, when buses start running and services and businesses reopen. But, he said, the jail can't compel anyone to do that.
Karen "Fox" Olson, the executive director of the Arcata House Partnership, said that is a nice — but unrealistic — offer. "There's no one that's going to want to stay around jail longer than they have to. It's problematic, but once people are given the green light they want to get out of there."
The jail's policy has elicited passionate response, perhaps most notably in the form of an angry letter sent Jan. 9 to county officials from Eureka businessman Rob Arkley, who's been making news recently with comments about the local homeless population and social services provided to the county's poor.
In that letter, apparently a reaction to Freed's death, Arkley wrote, "Have the County keep the cockroaches in jail until the later of 8 hours or 8 a.m. regardless of issue. When we let folks out in the middle of the night, there are no transportation and no services."
Downey said he's heard and understands that suggestion from more than one community member. "That is a very logical response. Legally we can't do that," he said. "We don't have the ability to hold onto [inmates] for fear of a future crime they might commit."
But some counties are looking at ways to help inmates being released to make better choices or land in safer situations.
A Florida county is trying to introduce programs to interrupt a jail-to-street-to-jail cycle that officials say leads to increased homelessness. Those measures include a pre-release screening and "those who say they are homeless are given a bus pass to a shelter," according to a report in the Sun Sentinel. "If the release comes late at night ... a deputy is assigned to drive the ex-prisoner to a shelter."
But while many agreed that Humboldt County needs to talk about its jail release policy protections for inmates and the community, little is being done so far.
Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills, whose officers patrol the streets surrounding the jail, said he's open to community discussion of when inmates should be released, but he sees more to the issue. "I don't think it's so simple to say we shouldn't let people out at midnight," he said. "I'm more interested in who we're letting go and why. If a person has had a psychotic episode earlier in the day as a cause of the arrest or during the arrest, I would love to see a mechanism to evaluate that person."
Arrestees are typically evaluated when they enter jail, but not when they leave, Mills said. "This seems to be a weakness in jails all over the country." Mills hasn't discussed this idea with Downey yet, but said he plans to meet with Department of Health and Human Services Director Phil Crandall in late January.
There are forms of risk assessment applied to inmates — but they're performed at the discretion of courts for people who have been charged and can't post bail, not on people in disorderly conduct detentions.
And there are so called "5150" holds which allow police to commit someone to a mental health facility for 72 hours or more. Mills said there's not much discretion on the part of individual officers when making that call. "[Arrestees] have to be gravely disabled, which means that they absolutely cannot care for themselves or others or are a danger to themselves or others," Mills said. "How do you predict that? Past behavior, the symptoms you're seeing and the words that they say."
But those holds are problematic, Robinson said. "Once the hold's done there's little follow up." Police need more options at their disposal, Robinson said, as jails are not the best way to handle people with substance abuse and mental health issues. "I always think it would be a great use of community resources if arresting officers had other facilities to deal with people instead of the jail."
Livingston said the jail and law enforcement work well with local treatment groups, helping to release inmates into programs when possible. And it's not only the jail — hospitals face similar issues when discharging patients who have drug addictions or mental health issues.
Ciarabellini said she's discussed the issue of late-night jail releases with Mills. "I've also talked with some of the supervisors. There is discussion going on. There hasn't been any formal action on the part of the council at this point."
Livingston said the Housing and Homeless Coalition is going to continue talks with jail personnel and other county officials about the release policy and continues work to expand treatment programs for drug users and the mentally ill getting out of jail. She suspects the recent tragedies will jumpstart the community discussion — though she's not interested in casting blame on any agency's actions for the deaths of Burrell and Freed. In the case of Bullock, she sees missed opportunities. "He had so many encounters with people and people feel that we as a community failed," Livingston said. "In reality there's a lot of really hard work being done. ... I think we have to be cautious that our public agencies don't close the door on discussion."
Ciarabellini said the balance of civil liberties and community safety continues to nag jail officials and treatment workers alike.
"People are released from jail every day — pre-sentence and post-sentence," she said. "It's really difficult to predict human behavior in regards to who you should hang onto and who you shouldn't, so coming up with a policy of keeping everybody until you're sure they're not going to prevent a crime really isn't possible."
Thadeus Greenson contributed to this story.