US Department of Justice finds potential mental health system violations

Photo of Alameda County Jail
Lisi Ludwig/File
The U.S. Department of Justice published a report April 22 after conducting an investigation into Alameda County’s mental care system. The investigation was conducted in Santa Rita Jail, John George Psychiatric Hospital, among other facilities and care homes.

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Following an investigation into Alameda County’s mental care system, the U.S. Department of Justice, or DOJ, issued a report April 22 detailing potential constitutional violations.

The investigation began in 2017 and covered Santa Rita Jail, John George Psychiatric Hospital and other facilities and care homes. The county allegedly failed to provide adequate mental health services and violated prisoners’ rights with prolonged restrictive housing, according to the report.

However, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sgt. Ray Kelly said the last walk-through of the jail facility was in 2019 and there have already been many changes made since then.

“Coupled out with homelessness, poverty, high cost of living, lack of services, and people end up in jail because there’s nowhere else for them to go,” Kelly said. “We have to try to do the best we can with the limited resources that we have to help those people.”

According to Kelly, the county jail was originally designed for short-term incarceration and low-level offenses. He said California legislation such as AB 109, which allows for non-violent offenders to be supervised by the county instead of the state, and Proposition 47, which reduced some felonies to misdemeanors, have added burdens to county jails.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted last year to increase the Santa Rita Jail budget for staffing and behavioral health, but this was unanimously opposed by Berkeley City Council.

Kelly added that there has been pushback from activists who prefer taxpayer money to go elsewhere.

The DOJ report also mentions the placement of prisoners with mental illnesses in “administrative segregation,” where they are cut off from regular human interaction and allegedly denied access to mental health treatment.

However, Kelly said Santa Rita Jail has switched to “administrative separation,” where people can communicate, see each other, pass notes, talk on the phone and interact with others in a regulated environment.

Kelly also discussed John George Psychiatric Hospital, where people are treated before they are booked into the jail or while they are in custody.

To alleviate the burden at the hospital, Kelly said it would be helpful to have a similar care facility near or at the county jail with custodial functions.

Kelly discussed multiple approaches to mental health services, including medication, cognitive behavioral counseling and providing services to keep people physically and mentally healthy.

Going forward, Kelly called for more staffing of doctors, deputies, clinicians and behavioral health experts.

“You’re gonna see a nexus to reentry, working with community-based organizations to get those people to reduce recidivism, to get those people to programs and services,” Kelly said. “You have to have this seamless justice system that brings in mental health, brings in a lot of players who work collaboratively for the benefit of the patient.”

Contact Catherine Hsu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @catherinehsuDC.