Federal judge delays decision on 'consent decree' overseeing Santa Rita Jail

In a virtual court hearing that lasted more than two hours, a federal judge delayed making a decision on what's called a "consent decree" between attorneys representing people who are mentally ill and the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, which oversees Santa Rita Jail. 

U.S. Magistrate Nathaneal Cousins, seated in San Jose, ordered a new court hearing on Jan. 27 so that incarcerated people at Santa Rita Jail can speak for themselves about the proposed legal settlement.  

"I'm going to digest the many things I've heard today," Cousins said. 

The delay was a setback for Kara Janssen and Jeffrey Bornstein, lawyers at Rosen, Bien, Galvan and Grunfeld in San Francisco, who sued the sheriff and the county in 2018 on behalf of incarcerated people who suffer from mental illness. 

Bornstein and Janssen both say that the consent decree – if approved – will improve the lives of most living behind bars and they had hoped the judge would approve the settlement on Wednesday, saying the matter is urgent, noting three people have died in custody in the last three months. 

Under the consent decree, they say that the terms of the agreement will mandate that those who need it will get adequate mental health care and a treatment plan; people will be placed in therapeutic housing units instead of restrictive maximum security units; more out-of-cell time will be given; and the use of small "safety cells" will be curtailed. In addition, the classification system of inmates will be redesigned to reduce the number of people put into isolation and there will be better coordination for people sent to John George Psychiatric Hospital. The oversight would last three years. 

Samantha Wolff, an attorney representing Alameda County, argued against the delay. She said there had been "ample notice" and pushing the hearing out another week just costs unnecessary time and money. 

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The judge's delayed decision came after dozens of objectors from mental health, civil rights and legal organizations begged him to reject the terms, or at least postpone his OK, until he could hear from more incarcerated people at the jail. They argued that the agreement would not prevent abusive treatment and instead would pour resources into jail staff rather than needed social services. 

"The settlement is tragic," said former state Sen. Lori Hancock. "Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on the jail, which has a troubling history and will become the largest mental health facility in Alameda County." 

Added mental health counselor and attorney Jen Orthwein: "Mental health practitioners are not listened to. This settlement provides more of the same." 

She said when she was supposed to be providing counseling to incarcerated people in jail, she often spent time "twiddling my thumbs" as the facilities were often on lockdown. 

Another activist argued that the decisions were being made by people who weren't Black and it's predominantly people of color who are unfairly the ones behind bars. 

Other objectors included attorney Yolanda Huang, Jose Bernal from the Ella Baker Center, John Lindsay-Poland from the American Friends Service Committee and others who also filed declarations opposing the terms. 

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 37% of those in state and federal prison have been diagnosed with a mental illness and in county jails, that number is even higher – 44%. While in jail, the students show that the number of people experiencing "serious psychological distress" is one out of every four people.

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@fox.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez