Since the launch of SJPC 2.0 this August, we have made the decision to focus on storytelling and consistently uplifting the stories and experiences of our community members. Today, we’re reporting back on a conversation we had with Eleanor Oliver, a member of Decarcerate Sacramento, who took the time to share their story regarding the criminal legal system with us!
Thank you to Eleanor, and to all our comrades at Decarcerate Sacramento.
If you want to learn more about DS, check out their website and IG page! Sign up for their mailing list to stay up to date on their work and actions/updates regarding the fight against the jail expansion!
Introducing Eleanor Oliver (they/them)!
As stated above, Eleanor (pictured right) is a member of Decarcerate Sacramento, and specifically volunteers for the Media/Outreach team. They were born and raised in Yuba City, and have been living in the Sacramento area for 15 years. Eleanor works as an electrical engineer for the state of CA, and is an active community member in S Natomas! They work with South Natomas United to help grow enrichment & development programs for youth, and ALSO shows up as a top-notch parent volunteer within the Twin Rivers Unified School District where they advocate for students with disabilities, and work to make sure student IEPs are being addressed appropriately.
Eleanor has a nephew incarcerated in the Sac County Main Jail, he was transferred to Sacramento after serving 13 years in a state prison. Their nephew was sentenced to life for a nonviolent crime when he was a minor; he has been transferred to Sac County while he waits for his retrial. Eleanor has been told by their nephew that the conditions in the jail are drastically worse than prison. Eleanor joined Decarcerate earlier this year, and their decision to get involved was prompted (as will be discussed in more detail below) by the fight against the jail expansion, and the transfer of their nephew to the Sac County jail.
This piece captures a transcript of the conversation Eleanor had with SJPC’s Program Manager, Andi Bianchi. Some portions of it have been edited down for clarity.
Large headings indicate the topic being discussed, remaining text indicates Eleanor’s responses.
Navigate this interview by topic:
What are your thoughts about the current attempt at a jail expansion, and what prompted you to get involved in the fight?
I’m appalled and disgusted.
I think what really initiated [getting involved] for me were the complaints I was getting from my nephew, again, because it was such a drastic change [from the conditions in prison]. It was one thing after another after another, and then even when you're able to go down and visit, these police officers don't want to actually help.
You can see it in their face and in their attitude. The lack of care for humans is just astounding, in the way that the police force do their job.
So, when you're in charge of other individuals that need help, and you don't even care for those people, how effective could they be at their job? How effective will it be for these people in prison?
What’s next for your nephew?
He has to get a psych evaluation that basically says that if we would have treated you like a kid, when you were a kid, and evaluated you, would you have been able to be rehabilitated? Instead of just looking at you like a grown man, even though you're not. So he has to go through a psych evaluation, and they provide that [psych evaluation] to the probation office. The probation office is who gives the District Attorney the go ahead on whether “no, we don't want him out”, or “yes, it looks like you'd be fine if we release him”.
I think in December is when they are going to do a psych evaluation, because they only provide two psych evaluations a year. He has been waiting his max amount of time, so they’re basically forced to give him this psych evaluation. And then once that happens, I'm hoping [he’ll be released], but you never know what other wrench is going to be thrown in this system, [a system] that does not make sense.
By early next year, he might be released. So that's the timeline there. If that doesn't happen - which I don't see how it wouldn't - if they decided, “yes, we want to keep him”, he would be sent back to a different state prison. And then he might have another 15 to 20 years that he would have to serve.
What motivates you to do this work?
I do come from a very large family, and I come from a large family that was primarily the only minority family in the city [Yuba City]. I have a history of seeing how they [the police] have treated my family. And so, even though negative things have happened towards my parents, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, we are built to be, or maybe raised to be, public servants. More than half of my family has done some type of military service, more than half my family does volunteer community work, even within Yuba City.
Maybe it's just from having a large family - we share, we provide, we help you. I mean, that's kind of what we were raised to do. I have always loved public service. “Oh, you need help?” “Yeah, sure. Of course.” “Yeah, you can do it!” I think having my nephew in there right now, and then the history of the relationship between my family and any law enforcement, I think that's what motivates me.
I think having open access to the right information, knowing what lies they [LE] are telling you and aren’t telling you is very important. Because even though I was raised to be of service, it won't help if that service is lying to me
I think a lot of it is also not a single prong [what motivates Eleanor], right? I was taught the value of education, because my grandpa didn't get education. He was, I think 92 when he died 10 years ago, so he had a very drastically different life, where he probably didn't get to go to college or even high school, they probably got an eighth grade (if that) education.
So I think education has really helped get me where I'm at, to be able to advocate and help where I can help. Because not a lot of people know how to respond when they're just told to do something. They don't know how to ask a question, “why?” Or, “for what?” That [education] has helped me out extremely, as well as the want to be out there to help.
What, if any, differences did you notice between LE in Yuba City vs. Sacramento County?
Surprisingly, I think I would rate Sacramento County better than Yuba City. But again, I think environment holds a lot of weight on that. Yuba City is a predominantly white town. I think, when you have not a lot of people that look like you [living in your community], they don't know how to treat you. So, I feel like I've seen more grace in Sacramento County.
But not to the point where it's, oh, here is this amazing county. More just like well, I guess thanks for not hitting me three times [as opposed to twice]. Thanks for not calling me an asshole twice. You just called me [an asshole] once. Yeah, thank you so much. I think [my experience here is different] because Sacramento is a lot bigger [than Yuba City]. In Yuba City, we would get the same police buggin’ us you know, all the time. They knew all of us by name, which is annoying.
[In Sac County] I've been arrested by several different cops. They're not saying, “Oh, you're back again?” They don't know [who you are] until they're fingerprinting, [and then they will say] “Oh, yeah, you've been here before”. Okay, good. As long as you don't know me by name.
Can you describe any personal experiences you’ve had with LE?
When I first got accepted into Sac State, I was already orphaned. Both my parents passed away when I was 16. And, though I was not at the lowest of lows, I was struggling, you know. I was living that life of couchsurfing, staying in your car, and stuff like that. Obviously, I don't have money. So one of my first experiences of getting arrested in Sacramento is stealing from Winco, because I'm freaking hungry. And there was no interpersonal connection that anyone [LE] tried to give me.
Even the Winco people were like, “Oh, we can just let her go”. Because, I'm not there stealing a cart full of things. I'm stealing Top Ramen. Why do you have to report it? And they [LE] come down and they check your ID to see if you have warrants and stuff like that. But they just went on booking me, like I was just another penny in the coin jar. Oh, here's another one. Here's another one. It was my first time getting arrested in Sac County. I didn’t know what to say. They don't know me like they do in Yuba City to say “Oh, Eleanor, don't do that. Go home”.
It was the emotionless [LE behavior]; I think that was my first real jolt of, oh, shit, they do not care about me here. They will just throw me in here and really forget about me
For that time I did spend one night in jail and then they released me at 3:30 in the morning. My car was all the way in Rancho Cordova, which is pretty far from downtown. I worked at the Starbucks at Cal Expo [at the time], so I had to walk from the county jail all the way to Cal Expo to make sure I made it to my shift on time.
I was so naive too, I was telling them [LE] all this, and asking “do I get bus pass? Or other types of things that can help me?”
The answer was, “nope, you get one phone call.”
Okay, well, “can I have my phone so I can get the number or?”
Okay, shit. Any little thing I tried to reach for [for help] was shot down. I was probably 18/19 y.o. at the time. It was just so scary walking from the Sac County jail all the way to Cal Expo by yourself.
What would have helped?
Food stamps. I had tried to apply, but both my parents were deceased, and I was 16 at the time. So technically, to be put into a legal system where you're entered into foster care, you have to be 15 and under. So, when I applied for food stamps, they wanted all my parents' information.
Obviously, I just provide the death certificates. But then, because I don't have my parents' information, they want a court paper. But the court won't provide me the paper because technically, I'm not in foster care with them. I was like, whatever, I'm gonna get a job and just try to work.
Yeah, so there was a lot of bureaucracy that was stupid. Having attainable access to food stamps would have been great. I mean, stealing Top Ramen. Does that deserve a night in jail? Or does that deserve [as an alternative] me watching a video about why stealing is wrong? And what you should be doing instead?
Obviously, I don't think the traumatic experience of being 19 in a cold cell, and then let loose in downtown Sac was worth 25 cents. Alternatives could have been, help. Any type of help.
Or when they [jail staff] release females so late at night by themselves, what are they thinking? I was raised around a lot of boys, so I know how to fight. But why should I have to? Again, I'm coming from the source that should be protecting us, right? I rant and rave about it now because I'm like, it's my taxpayer dollars for your gas - go drop me off! I think their release system is so wild. I think that would have helped [being given transportation] ease the traumatic impact.
Now that I'm older and I've watched all these [Sac BOS] meetings where, you know, sac county [Sheriff’s dept] comes and they plead their case to get more and more money for their staff. You guys [SSO] don't even connect with other organizations that will transport them [folks released from the jails], even to the services they need. Sac county [Sheriff’s dept] partnerships are null and void.
It's such trash, they don't even try to help the people they're actually serving. I think there are a lot of organizations out here that would pick up inmates being released, take them to a shelter that’s providing food, or even transport them back where they were picked up from. I think what would be helpful is transportation.
What other systems are tied up in the fight for decarceration?
When we think about even the grander theme of how to decarcerate Sacramento, a lot of other things come in.
We don't pay our teachers enough, right? But you want me to pay someone that's going to throw my nephew, throw our kids, to the ground or bug them because they're loitering?
I do truly feel like the homeless population, especially the ones that do have need for more help with mental health, are the new minority. They can't do anything without someone complaining or bugging them. It's like, how can I just live? You're mad at me for building my tent. Where am I supposed to go? Help me!
Then trash my stuff, and then arrest me. Great. Yeah, of course, they're gonna be upset. You're literally ruining every single fucking possession they have in their whole fucking world, and still not providing them anything.
I mean, they need somewhere to go. Where are your [Sac city/county] partnerships? How do these people that are in charge of public service, get in this position, and not even have charisma, or the panache to make partnerships with churches [for example]? Churches or community centers, like open up! Let's do this, let's make this work for everyone. It makes them look good. It makes you look good. It still baffles me that our idiot Mayor [Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg] just sits up there smiling. I'm like, you think you're doing a good job?
I'm just thinking, who doesn't love you [Mayor Steinberg]? They're not telling you that you're fucking up. They let you go out and think that you're doing well. No one's telling you on the back end, maybe you shouldn't do that? No one loves you enough to let you know what you're doing wrong? That's why you're supposed to get third party feedback, because obviously, you don't know what you're doing wrong until someone tells you.
Why am I [regarding our elected officials] doing public work if I don't want to work with the public?
You can always do private, you can charge people out the ass, you can select your clients, you could do all that. You do not have to work for the public. I think that's what frustrates me the most about anyone that does public work - when they don't do it correctly.
You don't have to be here. You literally don't, you can choose not to work here and you can work in something that fits better for your mental health, or your benefits, or your emotional status. If you're so unhappy to come to work, which I feel is most of the police force, you don't have to do this. You can go home.
Wrapping up with some thoughts on culture, accountability, and navigating the abolitionist space!
On connecting with comrades, and feeling gaslit by carceral power structures:
You heard what the fuck I heard, and are we going to say anything about this? Because I did not understand it. I always have to check with people to [reassure myself], okay, I'm not crazy. Because sometimes it does feel that way, especially with the work that we do, and with so many people in positions of power that don't understand.
They say the police are here to keep you safe and to stop the bad guys. Yeah, but they think I'm the bad guy.
On the SSO’s continual budget increases:
You want me to keep paying more and getting less? Huh?
On accountability within Sac PD:
They can't acknowledge that they're doing anything wrong. And they say, “no one ever talks about the great things that [we] do or the success that [we have].” Yeah, I'm not going to congratulate you for doing your fucking job.
An inside look at Sac PD culture:
I have a neighbor who started police training for SPD, and she immediately quit a week after because of the way that they motivate police officers. She told me she can see why they act the way that they act. Because if you try to give any type of leeway or consideration [to the people LE is interacting with], you're degraded about it. You have to have that mentality that it's us versus them. She said she can't even sit in the same room [of people] with that type of mentality.