Judge grants oversight over Santa Rita Jail stemming from mental health abuse suit

A federal magistrate on Monday granted a San Francisco law firm, along with help from the U.S. Department of Justice, oversight over Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail following allegations that those with mental illness are not treated humanely.

U.S. Magistrate Nathaneal Cousins approved the "consent decree," giving the oversight powers to attorneys at Rosen, Bien, Galvan and Grunfeld in San Francisco effectively immediately. The oversight will last six years. 

"The Court is convinced that a reform is necessary and the increase provided by the Consent Decree… is markedly better than the current situation," Cousins wrote. 

This agreement comes after nearly four years after the firm filed a class action lawsuit called Ashok Babu v. Ahern alleging the "cruel and unusual" treatment of people with mental disabilities, specifically by locking them up in isolation for long periods of time. A KTVU analysis in 2019 showed there was a high correlation between in-custody suicides and those people who had been locked in isolation. 

"We're very pleased," said Kara Janssen, an attorney with the firm that sued Alameda County in 2018. "This was long overdue."

Her firm will be paid about $2.1 million for the work they've already put into the case and up to a maximum of $2.25 million more until 2028. 

Even Samantha Wolff, counsel for Alameda County, had been urging for the judge to sign the decree, acknowledging that reforms must take place at Santa Rita Jail.  

To come to this decision, attorneys for the plaintiffs as well as Alameda County counsel filed 57,000 pages of documents, attended multiple tours of the jail over approximately eight days, and retained experts to investigate and render reports on the conditions in the jail. 

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Some changes that will take place include giving incarcerated people more out-of-cell time, requiring the jail to provide enough mental health staff as well as provide better treatment of mental illness.  The jail will also have to provide more therapeutic housing unis and improve the discharge system so that people with mental health disabilities aren't just thrown out into the street but will be able to more seamlessly transition to community-based psychiatric services.

In addition, the agreement allows the presence of the Department of Justice; attorneys from there will be touring the jail next week and will send in its own mental health experts in twice a year.  

Janssen and her colleagues will have access to records inside the jail and will be allowed to tour and interview those incarcerated to ensure that the conditions are being upheld. 

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There were plenty of objections over signing this decree – mainly that the agreement would give more money to the jail, instead of finding alternative options other than incarceration. 

Oakland-based civil rights attorney Yolanda Huang and other community activists, along with dozens of incarcerated people, told the judge that they thought the agreement would make things worse inside the jail. 

Jose Bernal, organizer with the Ella Baker Center, also opposed the settlement. 

"We are very disappointed and denounce this consent decree," Bernal said on Monday evening. "Despite hours of objections from civil rights groups, community members and incarcerated class members, the judge has decided to essentially green light a massive county jail expansion campaign."

Bernal said that throwing "hundreds omre deputies and millions more" in taxpayer dollars to "fix the jail is not only asinine, it's dangerous and will only result i the further caging, neglect and abuse of Black and Brown lives."  

But ironically, the judge pointed out, that many of the complaints – from inhumane conditions, minimal yard time lack of access to mental health resources, an unresponsive grievance process and unchecked uses of force –  will now be able to be addressed under this new oversight. 

All the parties involved agreed that Santa Rita Jail should not be the county's primary mental health care facility. 

But as the judge pointed out, that decision does not fall within the scope of the lawsuit; in fact, it's a societal issue that must come from police, prosecutors and politicians.  

And as long as things remain status quo, the judge said, then he would try to find the best solution to address the situation at hand. 

 "If the County chooses to continue funding a jail," Cousins said, "the Court seeks to ensure that the conditions in that jail are constitutional."

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