By Tiffany Devlin
Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail (SRJ) is infamous for having the highest in-custody death rate across all county jails in Northern California. Since 2014, 50 individuals have died while in SRJ’s custody.
Last week, Bob Britton, an activist with the Interfaith Coalition for Justice in Our Jails, wrote to the Vanguard to bring attention to a recent suicide of a woman incarcerated at SRJ.
On April 2, a woman in SRJ took her own life– the second suicide-related in-custody death in 2021. According to KTVU, she had been incarcerated since July 2020 and had seen a doctor on April 1. Just two months ago on Feb. 9, Jonas Park took his own life while housed in a mandated COVID-19 quarantine cell located in Housing Unit 23.
“HU 23 was designated as an intake unit,” said the deputy sheriff in a response to the suicide. “Since the inmates are on a 14-day quarantine, recreation is one cell at a time. It is common for inmates to have little or no interaction with other inmates during their recreation time.”
An analysis by KTVU published in March 2021, showed that people in HU 23 are only allowed out of their cells for 30 minutes per day for recreational time, showering, or making phone calls.
In 2018, attorneys from Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld (RBGG) filed a class-action lawsuit, Babu v. Ahern, on behalf of incarcerated people with serious mental illnesses. The case shows that even before the pandemic, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office’s poor protocols and medical neglect caused severe mental health crises in those with pre-existing mental illnesses. The plaintiffs allege that, “people with psychiatric disabilities are being held in isolation in small, filthy cells for 23 to 24 hours per day with little or no treatment, resulting in deaths and terrible suffering.”
During the pandemic, the psychologically damaging practice of severe isolation has become rampant and unchecked at SRJ, under the guise of COVID-19 protections.
This unethical practice of solitary-confinement-style quarantines was flagged by Mike Brady, a lead consultant with Sabot Consulting, who expressed concern with the lack of programming and out-of-cell time for incarcerated people under COVID-related quarantines.
“Half an hour is an incredibly low amount of time to be let out of your cell,” Janssen said regarding the Feb. 9 suicide. “If you’re depressed or have any history of mental illness, I have no doubt this would contribute to someone killing themselves.”
“This April 2 death would not have been known if not for a filing in a federal civil rights lawsuit, Babu v Ahern,” Britton writes, regarding the lack of public knowledge and transparency about these deaths. Indeed, both of these in-custody suicides during 2021 would not have been publicly known if not for court filings.
On April 22, the U.S Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division published a scathing investigation of SRJ and its high in-custody death rate. It affirms what attorneys at RBGG and NLG SF have been arguing for years now– the conditions many incarcerated people are subject to at SRJ violate their fundamental rights.
“We have reasonable cause to believe that Alameda County and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office violate the ADA and engage in a pattern or practice of constitutional violations in the conditions at Santa Rita Jail and that Alameda County violates the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) in its provision of public mental health services,” reads the 45-page report.
It is revealed that approximately 40 percent of SRJ’s population is on the mental health caseload. Approximately 20–25 percent of the population has a serious mental illness.
The DOJ finds that SRJ violates the ADA by not only denying services to those with mental health disabilities, but also failing to provide constitutionally adequate services to those with serious mental health needs, including those at risk for suicide.
The report also states that SRJ’s use of prolonged restrictive housing, by which individuals have very limited out-of-cell time, is a violation of their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
“Those with serious mental illnesses are subject to substantial risk of serious harm due to the jail’s use of restrictive housing,” reads the report on page 33. This conclusion is extremely relevant to the recent suicides in quarantine housing units, since quarantine protocols heavily resemble that of “restrictive housing.”
“The jail is not set up for people in a mental health crisis,” Janssen said in an interview with KTVU. “There is a large issue for the county to create a system of connecting these people with services and putting them in isolation isn’t the answer.”
When community organizers and activists questioned Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s Office on the 2021 suicides, they vehemently denied that the deaths are linked to COVID-19 quarantine protocols.
When one activist argued that a death in a COVID-related quarantine housing unit, which gets less than 30 minutes of out-of-cell time, is undeniably quarantine related, Supervisor Richard Valle said “I beg to differ.”
The Alameda County Public Health Department, which has the authority to recommend against solitary-confinement style quarantines also refused to recognize a possible correlation between the quarantine practices and recent suicides.
Kimi Watkins-Tartt, the director of Public Health, claimed it was a “very complicated question” and that she was not in a position to answer.
Tom Madigan, the Assistant Sheriff, however, claimed that they are working with Public Health to re-evaluate housing of those in quarantine units.
Madigan also stated that since the DOJ’s visit in 2019, the Sheriff’s Office revamped the entire jail classification system, resulting in a smaller number of individuals being placed in restrictive housing. He claims that the number will continue to decrease as their new classification system is fully implemented.