Community organizations representing incarcerated people in Babu v. County of Alameda held a press conference Wednesday to discuss objections to a proposed settlement.
The case is a federal class-action lawsuit challenging conditions at the Santa Rita County Jail, especially with regard to mental health care. The proposed settlement outlines measures such as increased out-of-cell time, Therapeutic Housing Units and hiring additional mental health staff.
“This jail would be changed by this settlement but in ways that many prisoners and community organizations have identified as ineffective and lacking in accountability and transparency,” said Santa Rita Jail Hotline coordinator Lina García Schmidt during the press conference.
According to Yolanda Huang, an attorney representing incarcerated people in the case, the settlement guarantees less time out-of-cell than before the COVID-19 pandemic. During the press conference, she added that more staff will not solve issues in the jail.
In court documents, incarcerated people claim the settlement does not adequately address the state of mental health care, isolation housing, staffing and out-of-cell time.
“Deputies are not interested in getting people help, treatment, or medicine; they look at us as a commodity or as a route to a paycheck,” said incarcerated person Timothy Phillips in the court document.
The judge presiding over the case heard prisoner objections to the settlement Wednesday, which Jonathan Simon, campus professor of criminal justice law, called “unexpected and very positive.”
Simon added that while the objections might not shift the outcome of the settlement, they may allow for amendments in the future. However, Simon raised concerns about additional staff, as it may lead to an increase in the jail budget.
According to Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Ray Kelly, the jail is regularly inspected by federal monitors. The jail also implemented a compliance unit that will report to federal monitors and the court.
“We’re dealing with a population of people that have much more severe mental health and behavioral health-related issues than we have previously dealt with,” Kelly said. “The jail is a microcosm of our community.”
Incarcerated people at Santa Rita Jail are also protesting commissary prices that were increased at the end of 2021. The overall increase is 5%, according to Kelly.
According to court documents submitted by Huang, approximately 28 incarcerated people are on a hunger strike. As of Tuesday, the jail has responded by locking them in their cells during meal times.
Kelly denied that a hunger strike was occurring but said approximately a dozen inmates refused meals from the kitchen and ate commissary food instead.
“We need to have better programs and services on the outside,” Kelly said. “It’s easy to put people in jail; it’s much harder to keep people out of jail by investing in them.”