Alameda County faces court decree to improve jail’s treatment of inmates with mental health issues

Almost three years after a federal class-action lawsuit alleged Santa Rita Jail conditions were so terrible that suicidal people were stripped naked and stuffed in solitary cells with only a toilet hole, the plaintiffs’ attorneys say a settlement has been reached that would put the jail under a microscope.

If the court approves the settlement later this year, it would issue a consent decree forcing Alameda County to make significant changes to Santa Rita Jail over the next two years.

“The decree requires fundamental and transformative changes at the jail,” said Jeffrey Bornstein, a partner at Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, which represented the plaintiffs. “There is a lot that needs to happen, especially as it relates to mental health care and treatment.”

Officials from the county and the Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, did not respond to requests for comment.

Many jail inmates have mental health issues, so the changes would be significant. According to a Department of Justice report released earlier this year, about 40% of people in Alameda County’s jails between 2015 and 2019 — the Glenn E. Dyer Detention Facility in Oakland also was open at the time — needed mental health treatment. The report also found that 20–25% of the population had a serious mental illness, and about 70% had struggled with substance abuse.

Under a consent decree, the jail would have to improve mental health care services, give inmates more time outside their cells, limit the use and duration of solitary confinement and ensure that there’s enough staff to implement the changes.

The decree would last six years to ensure that the county adheres to the changes, unless terminated early or extended by the court. It would be enforced by a team of experts who monitor the county’s compliance and track improvements in providing mental health care. The Department of Justice would be given full access to the jail and to case documents.

Filed in 2018, the lawsuit accused Alameda County of treating people incarcerated in its jails abhorrently. It alleged that suicidal inmates were stripped naked and given only a smock to cover themselves, then put into “safety cells” that had no furniture and only a hole in the floor to serve as a bathroom.

People in these cells could not wash their hands and were forced to sleep and eat on the floor, the lawsuit alleged.

Though they were only supposed to stay in those cells for 72 hours, some were kept there for as long as a week, according to the lawsuit.

The Glenn E. Dyer Detention Facility was closed in 2019 in a cost-cutting measure, leaving Santa Rita as the county’s sole jail.

Under the court decree, the county must establish a comprehensive program that involves regularly monitoring inmates’ mental health, electronically tracking medical referrals, delivering medication in a timely manner, providing group therapy and better coordinating community-based mental health services for those discharged from jail.

The county has faced additional scrutiny and legal action in recent years for its jail conditions and failure to address the mental health of incarcerated people.

In April, the Department of Justice released a scathing report that found Alameda County had for years violated the constitutional and civil rights of people with mental health issues by putting them in jail or its psychiatric facilities without adequately treating them either before or once inside.

In addition to some of the same issues cited by the federal class-action lawsuit, the DOJ report found that “the county’s discharge and treatment planning often fails to anticipate a person’s needs in advance of release and almost never includes goals for community stabilization.”

In 2020, Disability Rights California sued the county over similar allegations and called on it to expand community-based mental health services so people aren’t forced into the county’s John George Psychiatric Hospital or into jail. That lawsuit is still pending.

Last year, the Board of Supervisors approved spending $300 million over the next three years to hire 456 extra employees to staff Santa Rita Jail after the Sheriff’s Office argued many of them would be needed to improve mental health services.

Santa Rita isn’t the only local jail to be put under a consent decree. In 2020, Contra Costa County approved a similar settlement to avoid a lawsuit alleging a litany of jail issues, including mismanagement of medication, lackadaisical medical care, lack of group therapy, inadequate time time outside of cells and insufficient suicide prevention measures.

Bornstein said the consent decree in Alameda County will go a long way toward addressing custody issues, but more needs to be done to prevent recidivism and people cycling in and out of the jail and the psychiatric hospital.

“Things have gotten better but still not where they need to be,” he said. “It’s no substitute for a vigorous mental health program.”

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Author: Annie Sciacca