Months of action follow death of Antonio Thomas

Antonio Thomas was 39 years old on Dec. 8 when he was taken to the Sacramento County Jail for not following up with his probation officer. Instead of performing the normal probation checks with his probation officer at the police station, Thomas would normally report for a mental health check at a different facility that also fulfilled the requirements of his probation. Despite having a record of mental illness that was well known to the Sheriff’s Department in charge of the jail, Thomas was placed on the third floor with the general population alongside a man awaiting trial for murdering multiple people.

What exactly happened next is unclear as a result of the Sheriff’s Department refusing to provide the Thomas family with a full version of events that unfolded under their supervision. The only thing known for sure is that Antonio Thomas turned up brain-dead in his cell. Only after he was transferred to the UC Davis Medical Center would his mother be informed that he had only a slight chance at recovery.

From recent article in the Sacramento Bee:

“‘Sheriff’s personnel at the Sacramento County Jail failed to discharge their duty to keep the vulnerable Mr. Thomas safe and were deliberately indifferent to his mental health needs, placing him in a dangerous situation as a cellmate to a known violent offender,’ according to a claim [Thomas family attorney Mark] Merin filed with the county Tuesday as a precursor to a lawsuit.

“Merin alleges deputies delayed coming to Antonio Thomas’ aid until he had suffered grievous injury, and claims they delayed medical aid after he was pulled from the cell for a ‘period of time’ during which CPR would have saved Mr. Thomas from being brain dead. ‘Of course, the critical thing for us is, how could they take someone they knew to be mentally ill who had been jailed at that Sacramento facility before and placed in the medical ward and given proper attention … and then stick him with somebody who was charged with murder,’ Merin said.”

Life support turned off

More than a month later, the Thomas family, which had spent the past weeks reading, listening to music, and talking to Antonio, was forced to turn the life support machines off due to a lack of progress. Although he survived for a brief time without help, giving a glimpse of hope, he passed away on Jan. 21.

On Feb. 12, Cell Block 2 City Block and ANSWER Coalition Sacramento hosted a shirt-making event as part of the Sol Collective’s Sacramento Activist School. Members of the Thomas family as well as activists and community members from throughout Sacramento were able to screen-print shirts demanding justice for Antonio.

Daughter of Antonio Thomas shares at the Sol Collective during shirt making event. | Photo: Jamier Sale

On Feb. 16, members of the Thomas family and community gathered at the Party for Socialism and Liberation office in South Sacramento to paint a second banner dedicated to Antonio Thomas. Completed with the help of PSL member Alex Johnston, who provided the original art, along with several members of the Thomas family, the finished banner would accompany future events in the Sacramento area and serve as a reminder of the life and contributions of Antonio Thomas to his family and community.

On Feb. 23, Cell Block 2 City Block, the Sacramento Poor People’s Campaign, The Liberation Collective, and Sacramento ANSWER hosted a BBQ with the family of Antonio Thomas at McClatchy Park to celebrate what would have been Antonio’s 40th birthday on Feb. 25.

On March 8, Cell Block 2 City Block organized a Paint & Sip at the Sojourner Truth Art Museum in honor of Antonio Thomas. Attendants painted a modified version of the banner design previously mentioned and were able to take home their own piece of art reminding them of the life that had been taken by Sacramento Sheriff’s Department neglect.

Mobilizing the community

Each of these events was important in mobilizing the community behind the Thomas family as they prepared for the long struggle demanding answers and accountability from the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department and County Board of Supervisors. In coming weeks, there will be a press conference held by The Liberation Collective for Black Sacramento (TLC), Cell Block 2 City Block, ANSWER Coalition Sacramento, Sacramento Poor People’s Campaign, and local community organizations reasserting the following demands first drafted by TLC in support of the Thomas family:

1. The family of Antonio Thomas deserves to see all UNEDITED video of the incident that led to his comatose state. For purposes of accountability and transparency, these videos need to be made public, as the greater Sacramento community deserves an opportunity to challenge the treatment and care of our community members while in custody.

2. Release the names of all officers and/or inmates involved in and assigned to the area where Antonio was found unresponsive.

3. If deputies were involved in this incident, we expect them to be removed from assignment at the Sacramento County Jail and terminated from the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department.

4. Creation of a community-led commission to oversee reports of Jail misconduct and abuse, with the power to recommend and administer consequences to all deputies and/or staff involved in any incidences of misconduct, abuse and murder.

Antonio Thomas should have been housed according to his documented mental health condition despite the fact it is debatable whether he should have gone to jail in the first place. Instead, the county demonstrated once again its inability to safely and securely house those in their custody.

In the past year alone, there have been at least 10 deaths in the Sacramento County Jail system. However, the number of jail deaths only tells part of the story. Daily practices such as the psychological torture of solitary confinement, lack of mental health services, and housing people likely to have conflict in the same cell are just a few of the ways that violence is generated without generating headlines.

According to statistics compiled by Decarcerate Sacramento, at least 60 percent of all people in Sacramento County Jail are awaiting trial and have not been found guilty of a crime. Meanwhile, the jail has absorbed custody of numerous state prisoners serving up to 13 years as a result of a California Supreme Court Order condemning the overcrowded State Prison system. Instead of complying with the Supreme Court and incarcerating fewer people, they have chosen “Realignment” and simply moved them into the jails.

First filed in 2012, Ashker v. The Governor of California was finally decided in 2015 after three hunger strikes by California prisoners. Led by those at Pelican Bay and Corcoran, they were united by the historic “Agreement to End Hostilities.” The following demonstrations were rooted in demands to end indefinite terms of solitary confinement and the release of prisoners serving pre-1977 indeterminate sentences, among many others. While prisoners were eventually let out from the most extreme conditions of solitary isolation following the decision, indeterminate sentences remain in place for many of the hunger strikers.

From cell block to city block, the sheriff has demonstrated that he is unaccountable to any outside authority and that he has no interest in stopping any of the brutalization or killings carried out by his department. The few changes in prisons and jails that have come in the United States were the result of public pressure and outrage at the poor conditions found behind bars. As the struggle intensifies to stop yet another coming jail expansion plan, we can see that only the pressure of the masses can stop the growth of the prison industrial complex and end the sheriff’s reign of terror.

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