Alameda County ADA lawsuit settlement prompts controversy

Photo of Alameda County Jail
Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff
Santa Rita Jail has been placed under external oversight, which ends a 2018 lawsuit that alleged mental health abuse in the jail.

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U.S. Magistrate Nathanael Cousins approved a consent decree that went into effect Monday, placing Santa Rita Jail under external oversight, ending a 2018 lawsuit that alleged mental health abuse in the jail.

Kara Janssen, one of the attorneys representing incarcerated people in the jail, said the decision meant agreements that appear in the consent decree are now enforceable by law. Unless otherwise extended, Janssen added, the decree will be in place for six years.

“I was incredibly happy to get that decision, to see that the judge heard and saw the unconstitutional conditions in the jail,” Janssen said. “I’m eager to get to work.”

The decree could “dramatically” increase out-of-cell time for incarcerated people kept under restrictive settings — previously, jail policy required only five hours per week of out-of-cell time for those in restrictive settings, Janssen said. Now, that number goes up to 14 hours per week in highly restricted cases and up to 35 hours per week for other units.

Lina García Schmidt, hotline coordinator for the National Lawyers Guild, or NLG, an association of lawyers and law students providing legal support for political activism, said the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office will add nearly 300 new sheriff’s deputies and about 150 mental health specialists to the jail.

According to Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Ray Kelly, changes mandated by the decree include additional services such as counseling and vocational opportunities.

However, many incarcerated people argue the settlement is too vague to help them, Schmidt said.

Community organizations and civil rights attorneys are consulting with incarcerated people about whether to appeal Cousins’ Feb. 7 order, according to a press release.

The press release adds that 39 incarcerated people objected to the consent decree in a Jan. 27 hearing, and they have until March 9 to appeal the decision.

“What we saw on Jan. 27 in Judge Cousins’ decision was a disregard for the expertise that incarcerated people are bringing to this situation,” Schmidt alleged. “This settlement going through with no modifications feels like a slap in the face to all of the work and all of the lived experiences that people are bringing by speaking out and voicing their objections.”

Schmidt alleged that inmates were not properly notified they had access to the settlement documents and had trouble accessing them within the jail during the period that they could contest its contents.

According to a press release, Yolanda Huang, an NLG attorney, said the approval process is a “serious constitutional violation,” as it violated due process by not giving “adequate notice” to incarcerated people.

The settlement also lacks transparency and accountability, Schmidt alleged, since it does not contain a timeline for its goals.

“I am extremely disappointed and disheartened with this decision,” said Tommy Navarrette, one of the 39 incarcerated people who testified with their objections at the Jan. 27 hearing. 

The press release said the settlement increases Alameda County’s annual budget by $84 million but will not audit how the Alameda County sheriff will use the funds.

Navarette added the settlement has no investment in alternatives to incarceration. For example, diversion, the process by which people with mental health issues receive treatment in jail or during the prosecutorial process, is “extremely underutilized” in Alameda County, pointing to Los Angeles County, which he said provides mental health advocates to develop a diversion plan.

He also alleged the settlement would not provide inmates with enough out-of-cell time.

“Four hours per day for celled housing is not enough for General Population, let alone more restrictive housing where I am currently housed,” Navarrette said in his objection.

Contact Sebastian Cahill and Winnie Lau at [email protected].