Major mental health care reforms proposed at Santa Rita Jail with legal agreement

Major mental health care reforms could occur in the next few years at Santa Rita Jail as prison rights lawyers and the Alameda County Sheriff have agreed to a series of changes as the result of a proposed settlement filed Thursday in federal court. 

As part of what's called a "consent decree," the two sides have agreed on giving incarcerated people better mental health care, reducing the number of people in isolation and giving people many more hours a week out of their cells, among some of the examples.

The proposed settlement, which needs to be approved by Magistrate Nathaneal Cousins and finalized likely in December, staves off a trial from a class action lawsuit first filed by attorneys at  Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld. The agreement also mandates the payment of $2.1 million to the law firm and additional monitoring fees each year. 

The changes must come over the next two years and the oversight will remain in effect for a minimum of six years. 

The U.S. Department of Justice, which is investigating the constitutional violations of those with mental health issues at the jail, will be given access to information and visits to the jail, as part of the agreement. 

"This is a big settlement," said Kara Janssen, one of the attorneys who sued the jail. "It requires extensive changes that touch almost every aspect of the jail. It will take a significant effort to achieve them. But, if implemented, should result in a very different jail." 

Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the jail, agreed.

"It's a good thing, an absolutely good thing," he said. "It's going to bring a lot of change in the jail environment."

Over the years, Sheriff Gregory Ahern has welcomed changes proposed by the various sides to improve the jail and has noted that providing proper care requires the ample staffing levels and adequate funding. 

Ahern has also repeatedly highlighted the fact that the jail doesn't choose who comes stays there; that's often the decision of police, prosecutors and judges. And often, those people who are sent to jail have mental health problems and his correctional facility has not properly set up to address those issues. 

"The sheriff has been going to the board for many years, telling them that our jail has been changing and we need more staffing and funding," Kelly said. "Ultimately, it took this lawsuit to bring those issues to the forefront. At the end of the day, we needed to make this investment." 

MORE: DOJ finds mental health care, overuse of isolation at Santa Rita Jail unconstitutional

The consent decree is an important chapter after three years of legal meetings.

Janssen and her team sued Alameda County in 2018, alleging the cruel and unusual treatment of many inmates who suffer from mental illness. 

Santa Rita Jail has the highest in-custody death rate in the Bay Area and there is a high correlation of those who die by suicide and those put into isolation. 

Since then, her team has been meeting with county counsel and the magistrate to hammer out changes and reforms. Similar types of reforms have been enacted at jails in Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties, because of lawsuits and consent decrees there, too. 

MORE: Death rate at Santa Rita exceeds nation's largest jail system as critics call for reform

READ: A closer look at the inmates who have died at Santa Rita Jail 

Some of the key highlights of the consent decree proposal include: 

  • Mental health treatment: Those who need it will receive adequate mental health care and a treatment plan; people will be placed in therapeutic housing units instead of restrictive maximum security units. And these changes will be tracked electronically to avoid human logging errors.
  • Out of cell time: More out-of-cell time will be given. The minimum in the most restrictive area of the jail would be 14 hours out a week going up to 28 hours a week for those in less restrictive areas. People with mental health issues will receive more out-of-cell time with a minimum of 28 hours a week even in the more restrictive Therapeutic Housing Units.
  • Safety cell limits: Curtailing the use of small "safety cells" consisting of four walls and a grate on the floor for a bathroom; and not letting anyone stay in there for more than eight hours, and then to four hours, once new cells are built.
  • Reduce those in isolation: Completely redesigning the classification system to reduce the number of people put into isolation. Already that is taking place. When the suit began, there were about 240 people in what the jail called "Administrative Separation." As of April, there were just 40 people in what has been renamed "Restrictive Housing."
  • Better outpatient coordination: Better coordinate care for people sent to John George Psychiatric Hospital. That would include coordinating with community-based mental health providers to connect people to services upon release.

Janssen said she is not in charge of how the money is spent in the jail. But in her opinion, Sheriff Gregory Ahern has already been authorized funds to hire more deputies and mental health care providers to adequately meet the requirements of the consent decree. 

In May 2020, the Board of Supervisors approved the sheriff’s request for an additional $318 million over the next three years to fund Santa Rita Jail.

Ahern had submitted a proposal to hire 349 positions for his office and 107 positions from the county's behavioral services agency to help meet the reforms he knew he would have to make. 

On Thursday, Kelly said he doesn't expect that the sheriff will ask for much more money, but said the requests may be "incremental." 

This is the second significant law enforcement reform proposal in as many days in the East Bay.

Late Wednesday night, civil rights lawyers Jim Chanin and John Burris, who sued Oakland police in the infamous "Riders" scandal - and arguably the department’s fiercest critics -- are finally saying they believe it’s time to look at ending federal oversight after nearly 20 years.

Chanin and Burris noted Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong’s "strong leadership" and his commitment to the "fair and unbiased treatment" of those in the community, which he vowed to do when he took the job six months ago. 

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