Santa Rita Jail to implement mental health reforms following settlement

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Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff
Santa Rita Jail will institute mental health reforms following a three-year class-action lawsuit settlement.

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Santa Rita Jail has agreed to overhaul its mental health system following a settlement to a class-action lawsuit filed three years ago on behalf of the jail’s incarcerated people.

“It’s going to be a very different jail and this will make a difference in people’s lives,” said Kara Janssen, senior counsel for Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, the firm which represented the plaintiffs.

The proposed settlement must be approved by a federal judge before it takes effect.

Tash Nguyen, a program manager at Restore Oakland, one of the organizations in a grassroots coalition called Decarcerate Alameda County, said those inside the prison have told them mental health services are “sporadic and scarce,” and that many people with mental health needs are instead “punished” and put into isolation.

Janssen alleged Santa Rita Jail’s mental health services were “abhorrent,” citing the high mortality rate of people within the mental health unit and the “essentially nonexistent” help given to incarcerated people.

“There have been 50 deaths in the past five or so years; some of those years they’ve had 10 or so deaths within one year,” Janssen alleged. “That was a big red flag that something was wrong. A lot of those deaths and suicides were coming out of the mental health unit.”

The Alameda County Behavioral Health Services Agency could not be reached for comment.

Based on her conversations with those inside Santa Rita Jail, Janssen alleged that even if a person got help, it would only last a few minutes in a cell or a nonconfidential space. Furthermore, she alleged, those put into administrative segregation were only allowed to come outside for one hour every other day.

According to the 110-page proposed settlement made public Aug. 26, Santa Rita Jail must make “best efforts” to hire over 300 new staff members and build the Mental Health/Program Services building proposed several years before.

Janssen added that the settlement requires the prison to increase the amount of outdoor time given to at least 14 hours per week, create cells designed to minimize suicide risk and improve coordination with community-based organizations to help people reenter society after they are released.

Nguyen, however, said they have “grave concerns” about the settlement.

“There seems to be no recommendations toward actually finding alternative means of providing mental health care in the community,” Nguyen said. “We hope to see dollars in staff allocations in the settlement be redirected towards community mental health providers. That would actually provide meaningful treatment.”

Janssen said while the settlement would not decrease the number of incarcerated people, it would improve the lives of the more than 2,000 people currently at Santa Rita.

Janssen also said the reforms would also reduce future recidivism.

“This settlement is a part of the overall reform picture here,” Janssen said. “This is not something that is itself going to fix everything, but we cannot abandon the people inside the jails to abhorrent conditions just because we would prefer the jails to be closed.”

Christopher Ying is the lead crime and courts reporter. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @ChrisYingg.