Inmates oppose mental health settlement for Santa Rita Jail lawsuit

Photo of the Alameda County Jail
Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff
The lawsuit against Santa Rita Jail is on behalf of people incarcerated at the jail who allegedly do not receive adequate mental health care.

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Inmates of the Alameda County Santa Rita Jail shared testimonies of the alleged abuse and suffering they had endured at a hearing for the final approval of a settlement to the Babu v. County of Alameda class-action lawsuit.

The hearing is a continuation of a hearing Jan.19. The lawsuit, filed in 2018 on behalf of people incarcerated at the Santa Rita Jail, alleged the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office fails to provide adequate mental health care at the jail. The inmates and their advocates expressed strong concern with the proposed settlement.

“Santa Rita jail is not a place for treatment,” alleged inmate Timothy Phillips at the hearing. “The settlement only provides for investment in Santa Rita and no genuine investment into providing mental health care for prisoners. People need a facility and an environment that is specific to their needs. The mental health care in this jail is always reactive rather than proactive.”

The settlement would create therapeutic housing units for those with mental illnesses, increase out-of-cell time and hire additional mental health staff. The plan would also lead to the hiring of 300 new staff members. Inmates and their advocates see this as a step in the wrong direction.

For Yolanda Huang, an attorney representing the incarcerated people in the case, the basic problem is that jails should not be filling in the role of centers for mental health services.

According to Huang, the Santa Rita Jail suffers from a policy of isolation. Inmates have been held in their small cells for up to 23 hours a day since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Huang alleged. When provided mental health counseling, inmates are monitored by guards. Huang said she believes that this is not at all conducive to proper mental health counseling.

“The isolation from others, specifically, my family is very hard for me and I always feel misunderstood,” said inmate Zachery Rideaux at the hearing. “We need people who aren’t deputies to explain these things to us as well because being in jail makes you think about the world differently. After being incarcerated in Santa Rita, my mental health has gotten much worse.”

When reached for comment, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Ray Kelly said he could not comment until the hearings have concluded. In a previous article from The Daily Californian, he stated the jail is regularly inspected by federal monitors.

Former California senator Loni Hancock said this response dodges the issue. Hancock added she believes that accountability lies with the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and the elected sheriff.

According to a previous Daily Cal article, the jail saw nearly 50 deaths and suicides in the past five years. Additionally, a filing by the U.S. Department of Justice reports there is reasonable cause to believe that Alameda County Santa Rita Jail is violating provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Constitution.

“This is a carceral institution where they see that their role is to simply lock people up,” Huang alleged. “They’re not interested in helping people improve, be better, heal their traumas and childhood injuries. It’s not what happens in a place where all you’re interested in is locking people up.”

David Villani is a crime and courts reporter. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @DavidVillani7.