It’s barely been two months since the death of Anthony Aceves and two more inmates, 44-year-old Eric Denton and 37-year-old Shikiira Kelly, also died in Orange County jails just last week.
Last Saturday evening, a crowd gathered outside of the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange for a vigil to mourn their deaths and to raise awareness by protest, which was especially directed at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) jailers.
“I can’t even begin to articulate what I’m feeling,” said Diana Alvarez, the mother of the late Aceves. “I mean, I’m grieving my own son but I know how their parents feel.”
The frustrated crowd consisted mostly of friends and family of Aceves and community members who have attended the “Know Your Sheriff” workshop series put on by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California and the OC Racial Justice Collaborative.
The goal of the workshop is the educate the public about the role and power of a sheriff department’s operations. Many of those at the vigil plan to continue raising awareness attending future meetings. Their next meeting is this Thursday at 6 p.m.
Their motivations for coming out were made clear through the signs they held and the chants they shouted for all to hear.
“Invest in caring! Not caging and killing!”
“What do we want? Accountability! When do we want it? Now!”
“OCSD can’t hide for long! When we unite our voice is strong!”
Huntington Beach resident Gianni Castellanos said he felt privileged to be able to use his voice to shed light on this issue.
“I’m lucky that I was able to escape from so many of the ways I was heavily marginalized,” he said, “and I don’t want anyone to be marginalized.”
Arthur Alvarez, Aceves’ uncle, said he was humbled to continue having people he does not know rally in support of their family.
“This is a community at it’s best,” said Alvarez as he surveyed the scene. “They could be doing anything tonight but they’re here.”
Despite the vigil largely following recent events, it reflects upon nearly a decade of jail deaths, some of which remain mysterious. According to a data request from the OCSD, 62 people have died in OC jails between January 2010 and June 2018.
Later in the evening, people in attendance gathered in a circle to state why they came out, tell stories of Aceves and remember the lives lost by reading a list of names of all who have died in OC jails since 2010.
Daisy Ramirez, OC Jails Policy and Conditions coordinator at the ACLU SoCal, has worked toward improving conditions in both LA and OC lockups. She said it should be within to best interests of the OCSD to ensure inmates access to the services that they need so they are released back into society properly.
Ramirez said one thing that stands out the most of is the unwillingness of Orange County’s Board of Supervisors to meet with the community.
“Until they realize how many of their constituents are coming together and demanding change and will not remain silent, hopefully then they’ll start paying attention to the work that we’re doing,” Ramirez said.
Many in attendance said they believe the sheriff and coroner’s role needs to be broken up to bring about change. Currently, both offices are led by Sheriff Don Barnes.
Mike Tucker, who is a part of the OCRJC’s leadership team, said he hopes for a better oversight committee when there’s a death in jail.
“There’s a clear conflict of interest when the sheriff who’s responsible for those jails is also in charge of the investigation of the cause of death,” Tucker said. (Jail deaths are also investigated by the Orange County district attorney’s office.)
Above all else, people want answers. Diana Alvarez said bringing awareness to her son’s death through rallies and vigils is the only form of therapy she has.
“I’m not just gonna sit at home and wait for that phone call that could take six months to a year,” she said. “How am I supposed to grieve without even knowing how my son died?”
Alvarez added she will never be the same person she was two months ago and now plans on continuing to fight for all the people who don’t have a voice.
Arthur Alvarez said he will continue to share his nephew Aceves’ story as a cautionary tale for families to check on their loved ones in jail, especially those with mental illnesses.