Alameda County pushes back on DOJ report that found Santa Rita Jail conditions 'unconstitutional'

 (Photo by Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Alameda County is pushing back on a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report that found the mental health care and overuse of isolation at Santa Rita Jail are "unconstitutional."

In court filings presented Friday before U.S. District Court Magistrate Nathaneal Cousins, lawyers for the county called the federal criticism "stale," and pointed out that the civil rights prosecutors hadn't visited the Dublin-based jail, which houses about 2,200 incarcerated people, since 2019.

"As a result, the report is based largely upon stale information," wrote the county's lawyer, Gregory Thomas. "Moreover, neither the County nor [the Alameda County Sheriff's Office] were contacted by the DOJ to discuss the matter or obtain more current and complete information before the DOJ issued its report. As a result, the basis for the DOJ’s purported findings and recommendations predates the COVID-19 pandemic and many changes that have already been made at [Santa Rita Jail] or are being made as part of this litigation." 

The 45-page report was released on April 22.

DOJ investigators found that the mental health care for those incarcerated is woefully inadequate and the common practice of putting people into cells without activities or much human contact for prolonged periods of time constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, which violates the Constitution. 

Attorney General Merrick Garland threatened to sue if conditions weren't corrected in seven weeks. 

However, the county pointed to many things that have changed in the last two years, largely as a result of a 2018 class-action lawsuit alleging just what the DOJ found.

Some of those improvements include: 

  • In March 2020, the Alameda County Sheriff's created a step-down "Administrative Separation RecTogether" classification to increase out-of-cell time for incarcerated people housed in restrictive housing.
  • The sheriff has begun to roll out a new classification system, which has significantly reduced the number of inmates classified as Administrative Separation or isolation. This has already resulted in the number of persons classified as Administrative Separation decreasing from about 240 to approximately 40 people. 
  • The jail is now offering regular group therapy in Housing Unit 9 and is in the process of providing additional group therapy to Behavioral Health patients housed in other housing units at Santa Rita Jail. 
  • The jail is now ensuring that people coming and leaving from Santa Rita "have direct access to community resources through the onsite ROOTS trailer."
  • The sheriff and behavioral health unit have begun implementation of a "more robust suicide review process," including monthly review of inmates with a propensity for self-harm. 
  • The Board of Supervisors authorized the hiring of significant numbers of Adult Forensic Behavioral Health and sheriff's staff in order to improve access to and the quality of mental health care at Santa Rita, and both groups are in the process of hiring to fill these newly authorized positions. To date, the behavioral health unit has hired approximately 15 new employees and the sheriff has created a recruiting unit and an extra night academy to expedite hiring.
  • As of May 16, the sheriff will have hired 43 new sheriff’s technicians to work at the jail and will have promoted 27 new jail supervisors.
  • Since July 2020, the sheriff has hired a total of 53 deputy sheriff recruits and 32 other positions to fill existing vacancies and newly authorized positions. In the meantime, the sheriff instituted a mandatory overtime policy. 
  • The sheriff has established a "compliance unit" created in part to ensure compliance with minimum out-of-cell time. 
  • The sheriff's office now provides incarcerated people with tablets which include, among other things, therapeutic and educational materials as well as music, movies, and the ability to make phone calls. 
  • The sheriff has increased the number of free telephone and video visits for incarcerated people while in-person visitation is suspended during the global pandemic.
  • Physical plant and other changes were made to improve the confidentiality of the intake process at Santa Rita Jail by creating or expanding private interview, clinical and office space. 

In an interview this week with KTVU, Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern said that he has been working on improving conditions at the jail. He noted that he's retrained deputies in de-escalation techniques and that deputies have actually stopped 65 suicides so far this year.

And he acknowledged more needs to be done.

"I would like to see more attention and more services for the inmate population that has behavioral health issues," Ahern said. "That is the responsibility of Alameda County, of myself and adult behavioral forensic people and we want to see expanded services to include 24/7, holidays, weekends, that type of thing."

Ahern said caring for people with mental health issues is a delicate task.

"We're dealing with people that have reached a breaking point," he said. "And they have mental health issues and they start developing other dysfunctions as well with alcohol or drugs and so you have a combination of mental health, drug abuse, health issues that lead them to be arrested by law enforcement."

But Ahern said it's his role to make sure to address these challenges. 

"We have a priority to address their mental health issues. We want to get them medicated. We want to get them into counseling. We want to make sure that while they’re in our custody, they are being seen and being taken care of. I do think about how to make improvements each and every day. I tell my staff, let’s go out and be great today." 

KTVU investigative reporter Brooks Jarosz contributed to this report. Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernande