Alameda County’s faltering mental health system needs reform

COUNTY AFFAIRS: US Department of Justice report reveals undue reliance on Santa Rita Jail for psychiatric treatment

Illustration of Santa Rita Jail against a backdrop of people in jail cells
Rachel Lee/Staff

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One of the largest providers of mental health services in Alameda County is not a community clinic or treatment center but a jail. And not just any jail: Alameda County Santa Rita Jail, a facility notorious for dangerous and inhumane conditions.

For decades, as access to psychiatric care has dwindled, jails and prisons nationwide have become de facto destinations for people with mental health issues. 

Alameda County is no exception. Almost half of the people currently held in Santa Rita Jail struggle with mental health issues. One quarter face severe mental illness. The situation is dire: A recent report by the U.S. Department of Justice, or DOJ, deemed the mental health services provided by Alameda County so abysmal as to be potentially unconstitutional.

And it’s no wonder. When a place like Santa Rita Jail is charged with caring for many of the most vulnerable people in our community, what positive health outcomes can the county expect?

Jails and prisons are not intended to provide the specialized treatment that people with mental health issues need; they are intended to punish and destroy. Correctional officers aren’t adequately trained to interact with individuals in ways that are respectful and humanizing; they are trained to dominate, often with force. 

And yet, Alameda County has overwhelmingly and unconscionably placed much of the onus of psychiatric treatment on malignant state facilities — both jails and institutions — that will sooner disappear people than return them safely to their communities.

Part of the problem begins with policing. Central to talks of police reform nationwide has been barring sworn officers from responding to mental health crises. As part of its Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, Berkeley has explored creating a Specialized Care Unit, or SCU, that would respond to such calls. The recent report from the DOJ demonstrates the urgency of reducing the number of encounters — many of which are fatal — that people in crisis in Alameda County have with the law.

But the need for reform extends far beyond SCUs.

Often, the most effective way people with mental health issues can receive care is to get arrested. That psychiatric treatment — and woefully inadequate treatment at that — has become synonymous with incarceration reveals a systemic lack of preventative, noncriminal, community-based mental health services Alameda County must address.

Despite receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from the county, Santa Rita Jail has for years been a case study in the failures of a justice system focused on punishment and revenge rather than repair. When an isolation cell in jail is an acceptable form of mental health treatment, the dire need for alternatives to incarceration becomes difficult to ignore.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2021 opinion editor, Jericho Rajninger.