Quick Take:

Crystal Ross has spent six of the past 10 years in the Santa Cruz and Monterey county jails. She describes her experiences here in a lengthy “Conversation with Jody,” which offers a peek at life “inside.” She describes women wailing to see their children, “unhygienic” facilities, rampant untreated addiction and mental health issues and a system unprepared to meet people’s needs, despite all the money we have thrown at it. Hers is not an easy read, but it’s an important one. Sober now and free since Sept. 17, Crystal says she is working to be an advocate and a voice for others still in jail.

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Jody K. Biehl Conversations

Crystal Ross has spent six of the past 10 years in the Santa Cruz and Monterey county jails.

She tells grim tales from inside.

She talks about mothers wailing over kids they can’t see, of “unhygienic” facilities and rampant mental health and addiction issues our current system seems ill-equipped to address, despite all the money we throw at it. (The jail has a budget of about $35 million.)

Crystal offers us a first-hand “look” at a place few of us will ever go.

She reminds us that we, who consider ourselves forward-looking and compassionate, are failing to see or help many of our most vulnerable.

“I think the world should know that people in the Santa Cruz jail are struggling,” she tells me in the accompanying “Conversation.” “I have never had such a horrible experience as I did this past year in the Santa Cruz jail.”

Crystal’s stories are disturbing. They are also her opinion based on her experience inside the jail.

After I talked with Crystal, I reached out to Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Dan Freitas, who runs the county’s jails. I told him about Crystal’s complaints and invited him to write a response.

I’ll be reaching out again this week, after he has read her story.

I met Crystal at Gemma House, a women’s residential transitional treatment program that operates out of a single-story, furnished home in Live Oak. Crystal finished the last four months of her sentence — which ended Sept. 17 — at Gemma, and she will stay there another 14 months as she looks for a job and to transition to life “outside.”

She credits Gemma with changing her life, helping her find the will to take care of herself and get sober.

Crystal’s story illustrates the cycle of addiction, isolation and illness that leads too many in our community to move from jail to homelessness and back to jail again.

She says she knows many people who have left jail with nothing and have wandered the half-mile distance along the San Lorenzo River to the Benchlands homeless encampment.

The city is trying to clear out the Benchlands — calling it a health hazard and a haven for drug dealers.

Crystal sees it differently. She calls it “a place to go. Even if you are drug addicts and screw-ups, it’s a place you are wanted.”

We need an alternative to jail

Crystal is an important, underrepresented voice who can — and already is — holding Santa Cruz County law enforcement accountable for what happens inside our jails. She is advocating for more humane conditions for women in jail and better health care to help them break cycles of incarceration.

While she was in Main Jail, she wrote letters to public officials asking for help.

That is partly how I found her.

I spoke to three other women — all of whom eventually decided not to tell their stories about their time in jail (two feared losing their kids) — before I met Crystal.

Crystal and I sat at Gemma’s kitchen table, which was covered in a blue and white tablecloth and had a vase with bright pink plastic flowers on it, along with an assortment of magazines. Behind us, a “chore board” delineated what each of the six people living in the house had to do that day. Pastel art of birds and inspirational sayings decorated the walls, and other house members — all on house arrest — walked past and waved.

Crystal says we need to provide more services, programs and incentives for those addicted to drugs and alcohol or burdened with mental illness. More houses like Gemma.

Mothers were there distraught, going crazy, like just constantly crying and screaming at the officers and screaming at people around them. And it just causes conflict, and people are fighting, and it’s hard. I don’t think they understand how hard it is for people to be taken away from their kids. — Crystal Ross

Not more incarceration in Main Jail, which was built in 1981 for 311 people and currently holds about 345 (299 men and 46 women on Aug. 17). That system, she says, is not working.

And, Crystal — backed by health, education and justice advocates she has met over the past year of writing letters — says the county needs to reopen the Blaine Street Facility, a low-security, 32-person jail attached to the main jail at 259 Water St. It closed when COVID-19 hit, and has not reopened due to staffing shortages in the sheriff’s office.

That has left only Main Jail as an option for low-to-medium-risk people like Crystal.

The jail, she says, is overcrowded, and it is both over- and undermedicating patients with addictions and mental health issues and releasing people without proper medication or follow-up treatment plans.

It’s not rehabilitating people, she says. She thinks it’s making people worse.

Crystal speaks movingly, heartbreakingly, of the isolation and desperation women felt during COVID-19, when the jails locked down and didn’t allow visits, even among mothers and children.

On June 25, Main Jail reinstated “non-contact” visits, which means those in the main jail can visit children and family by sitting in booths and talking on phones through glass. Crystal says the lack of actual contact leaves many feeling unfulfilled so they avoid visits altogether.

Crystal Ross had her ankle monitor removed Sept. 17.
Crystal Ross had her ankle monitor removed Sept. 17. Credit: Jody K. Biehl / Lookout Santa Cruz

She does say our jail is better than Monterey’s. But that offers little solace after hearing her complaints.

Crystal is warm and self-deprecating and emotional. She cried several times during our two 90-minute talks, particularly when she spoke about her daughters, who were ages 16 and 2 when she first went to jail and who are now 26 and 12. She is hoping to rebuild trust with them, although she knows she can’t get back the time she has lost.

Her thick, blue Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book” sat next to her on the table both times we met. She wore an ankle monitor, which got removed Sept. 17, when she finished her sentence.

In our accompanying “Conversation,” Crystal opens up about her addiction, about her fraught personal life, the fight with her then-partner and the domestic violence charge that led her to go to jail and lose her kids.

She says she is determined to stay sober, reconnect with her daughters and be an advocate for those still incarcerated.

A heartening moment of community opening

After I met Crystal, I got to watch her in action.

I attended an August meeting of the county’s Commission on Justice and Gender at the Watsonville library. Crystal attended, too, with her ankle monitor on.

The 90-minute public meeting focused on health care in the jails and included a presentation by Freitas, who runs the jails.

After Freitas spoke, Crystal raised her hand and respectfully challenged many of his statements, including about how medication gets handled and how much staff is needed to reopen the Blaine Street Facility.

It was quite a moment. A formerly incarcerated woman challenging the jail chief with her lived experience.

Freitas, who did not wear a uniform to the meeting, listened attentively and said the jail is working to do better, but is struggling with budget issues and to hire staff.

After the meeting, he walked up to Crystal and others who spoke to learn more.

That was heartening.

Much work remains.

We need more of this type of public dialogue, more openness between the sheriff’s office, the public and the formerly incarcerated.

Reading Crystal’s story — hearing her voice — is a start.

Part 1 of Jody K. Biehl’s conversation with Crystal Ross, edited for clarity, follows; look for Part 2 on Thursday.

The Santa Cruz County Jail in December 2020
The Santa Cruz County Jail in December 2020. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Jody: Thanks for talking to me, Crystal. A lot of people who had been in jail didn’t want to talk for various reasons. But you said yes. Why? What pushed you to agree to talk to me?

Crystal: I want to be an advocate. I think the world should know that people in the Santa Cruz jail are struggling. Women. I have never had such a horrible experience as I did this past year in the Santa Cruz jail — and I have been incarcerated for six of the past 10 years.

Jody: What do you mean?

Crystal: I mean it was terrible. The mental health problem is rising. The females are too cramped. Half the time the jail doesn’t have sheets that are clean for us. It’s just gross and not hygienic with COVID-19 going around and all of this. They’ve done a bad job quarantining people. Once, they put a female in with us without proper quarantining beforehand and the whole unit got COVID-19. I find that negligence on their part. They gave us all COVID-19 and there were about 20 of us.

Females need help. We want to see our kids. There were no visitations allowed for a long, long time because of COVID-19, and it’s still no-contact. That is just devastating when you really can’t see your kids for a year.

It’s just, it’s depressing. And who knows if you’re going make it out of there mentally OK with all the mental health in there. You don’t get to sleep … you’re lucky if you’re getting the right meds for you. You have to worry if they’re overmedicating you. You never feel you can relax. You end up way worse off than when you went in.

Jody: What do you mean women couldn’t see their kids?

Crystal: With COVID-19, you couldn’t see your kids. Not at all. No visitations. Now, they say there are some no-contact visitations allowed, but even that is terrible if you have kids. You can use phones, but they aren’t enough. You want contact.

During COVID-19, they had these tablets that you were supposed to be able to have visits on and half the time the visit cut off or it was broken or you used up all your time with the problems and then didn’t get a visit. So you got no real contact. Maybe, maybe just a phone call. And when you have babies, the phone really doesn’t work. And when that goes on for a while, weeks, months, you lose connection with your kids.

So, you know, mothers were there distraught, going crazy, like just constantly crying and screaming at the officers and screaming at people around them. And it just causes conflict, and people are fighting, and it’s hard. I don’t think they understand how hard it is for people to be taken away from their kids.

I went through that, too. I lost my two girls. So I was always trying to help the next girl in there and be like, “You’ll get to see them.” But a lot of times, they just don’t get to see their babies, their kids.

Life inside Main Jail

Jody: Most of us have never been inside the jail. Can you describe it for us?

Crystal: So there’s two female units. We have two floors, six on top, six on the bottom, 12 cells, each with two in a cell, and you have metal bunk beds. We fit two in a room unless we are overpopulated and then people are on the floor. They have to throw these plastic boats on the floor and people will sleep in those. It’s like half a canoe, but plastic.

Quotes taken from interviews UC Santa Cruz researcher Susan Greene did with women in Main Jail in 2022.
Quotes taken from interviews UC Santa Cruz researcher Susan Greene did with women in Main Jail in 2022. Credit: Via Susan Greene

The cells are, I believe, like 12 feet by 12 feet. And you have a sink, a toilet to share. And that’s it. I guess there were some rumors going around that they’re supposed to have a desk and a chair in there, but that’s not in there.

Jody: Do they separate you or put people with mental health issues into separate treatment areas?

Crystal: There is a medical unit, but usually, the [people with] mental health [issues] are put right in with us. A lot of these ladies have mental health [issues] and the terrible piece is when they can’t function with the general population, they are being locked in cells alone. And these ladies are only coming out like an hour a day. They are in there getting meds, but if these ladies are in there for months, and there is no change — which happens a lot — you have to figure the meds are not working.

I mean, us girls that are in our unit, we hear them talking to themselves or screaming. You know, it gets edgy. The place is not very big for us females. And it’s hard to get used to being around 20 or 30 females that are different, all with problems. We are in jail so no one is happy — and we’re all expected to get along.

But when girls are screaming — because they’re not medicated right or whatever — and it lasts all night long, we get no sleep. So everybody’s aggressive. Everybody’s arguing, everybody’s fighting. And they wonder why? Because it’s an uncomfortable place to be when we have a lot of mental health [issues].

Santa Cruz County Jail
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Jody: So you think women should have segregated units? How would that work?

Crystal: The men have segregated units, based on classifications like gang status, sexual assaults and other stuff. There is red and blue, obviously. If people in the red or blue gang don’t get along, they separate them, too. Then they have another unit for the general population.

We only have two units. Total. One is protective custody [women convicted of sex or violence-based crimes against children] and one is general pop. The gangs don’t matter in our unit. We are expected to get along, which we do for the most part.

But if you have a mental health issue, you don’t always get along with the general population and then you are going to get locked in a cell if you can’t function. People come in [to the jail] in bad shape. They destroy their cells. They throw food and feces and urine. I get it — we can’t function with someone throwing poop at us. But being locked in a room is not helping these ladies. It takes way too long — like six to eight months — for the state hospital to come get them. That is too long.

The Blaine Street Facility

Jody: When I first talked to you, we talked about alternative facilities to the jail, facilities you think work better for women. You have advocated strongly for Blaine to be opened. Why?

Crystal: It’s just a better place to live, to transition. It’s right next to the jail. You could see your kids, your family there. Saturday and Sunday visits, contact visits. We have couches, we have a TV, services. It feels like a more normal place.

Quotes taken from interviews UC Santa Cruz researcher Susan Greene did with women in Main Jail in 2022.
Quotes taken from interviews UC Santa Cruz researcher Susan Greene did with women in Main Jail in 2022. Credit: Via Susan Greene

We have three different day rooms where everybody pretty much gets along. And it’s pretty. We have a garden, we have a hall to eat dinner and we have vending machines and services. It’s a blessing. Especially for families.

But since COVID-19, all that has been closed. It’s still closed. Everyone is in the main jail.

Jody: You started advocating for women in the jail during COVID-19. That’s how I learned about you, how we got in touch. Why did you do it?

Crystal: At one point, I was just sick of it and mad, especially because they have a whole building [Blaine Street] nearby they could use and nobody in it. They could have used it to keep us females over there safe from COVID-19. But they said that was just not an option because they don’t have enough staff. But we kept continuously seeing new people every single day, like, come on. They say they don’t have enough staff, but it takes two people to run Blaine Street — two females. That’s it.

Jody: How is the atmosphere among people in the jail? The Sheriff’s Office reports that 69% of women in jail are taking prescription drugs and 39% of them are taking psychiatric medication. Talk a bit more about how people’s mental health is affected by their time there.

Crystal: Half the women in there I would say have mental health problems. And really, there are just too many women in there. And they are not getting the help they need. The conditions and the treatments are making them worse, not better. And the meds are a mess. I don’t trust any of the meds they give there anymore.

And I mean, people, they know vaguely that there are some resources out there, but they don’t know what they are and so they don’t want them. They have mental issues or addiction and they just aren’t ready to get help. But they also don’t have anyone telling them what the help is for them.

Jody: Have you asked for services or medical help and not received it?

Crystal: You don’t get anywhere talking to these officers. They don’t care. The help is not there. That is a big point I want to make. And I understand it’s jail. We are there for a reason. But they’re … they’re liable for us. You know what I mean? You have no other outlet. You are totally dependent and the help is just not there.

Coming Thursday: Part 2 of Jody K. Biehl’s conversation with Crystal Ross.

Jody feels like she is the luckiest person in the newsroom.As Lookout’s Community Voices editor, it’s her job to find the region’s keenest thinkers and most empathetic, diverse voices and help them...