By Tiffany Devlin
ALAMEDA, CA– In 2018, attorneys from Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld LLP filed a class-action lawsuit, Babu v. Ahern, on behalf of incarcerated people with serious mental illnesses in Santa Rita Jail (SRJ). The plaintiffs allege that, “prisoners 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.”
While the class-action lawsuit is still being litigated for those with serious mental illnesses, representatives from the National Lawyers Guild – San Francisco (NLG-SF) among other organizations held a press conference raising awareness of those experiencing medical neglect within SRJ.
Lina Garcia-Schmidt, the SRJ Solidarity Hotline Coordinator, began the press conference by telling Randy Harris’ story.
Harris is a 59 year old man currently incarcerated in SRJ. He suffers from a seizure disorder, and has reported excruciating and immobilizing pain for the past six months due to falling down a flight of stairs in SRJ.
Mr. Harris repeatedly requested to be housed in a lower-tier cell prior to his fall due to his seizure disorder, but multiple deputies allegedly responded that it would be “too much work” to move him.
At one point, the deputies allegedly told Harris, “have a seizure, then we’ll talk.” Medical experts have determined that he requires an outpatient consultation to determine whether or not surgery is needed.
On April 16, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Amy Sekany ordered Harris to be transported to Kaiser Permanente. The order states that Harris must be transported forthwith for “prompt follow-up with an orthopedic surgeon or neurosurgeon for evaluation of his spinal imaging and back pain and discussion of treatment options.”
While SRJ staff were supposed to facilitate this transport, Harris was never transferred. County Counsel intended to oppose Harris’ release for a hospital appointment, which would determine whether surgery was necessary for him.
Based on an update from the National Lawyers Guild, County Counsel Clay Christianson appeared in court on April 21 to oppose Judge Sekany’s order to transport Harris to Kaiser Permanente.
While Judge Sekany vacated her order, she claimed in the record that the Court is in a “challenging position” because SRJ and Wellpath refuse to provide sufficient information about Harris’ course of treatment.
Furthermore, District Attorney Monica Brock rejected Harris’ Public Defender’s request to release him on his own recognizance.
Brock argued that Harris cannot be released because he represents a public safety risk, ignoring the fact that his condition has left him unable to stand, walk, or chew his food.
Harris has said that the level of constant pain he experiences from his spinal injury has caused him to contemplate suicide. He stated to the National Lawyers Guild, “I’m in extreme pain – what more do I have to do? All the people [in my life] are dead, and I’m thinking about joining them.”
“We’re very concerned that this individual has been suffering extreme pain for the past 6 months,” said Garcia-Schmidt. She also notes the importance to understand that Harris is not the only one who is currently experiencing these conditions.
“There’s a wide range of medical neglect that people have reported to us, including not able to access albuterol inhalers, if they suffer from asthma.” said Garcia-Schmidt.
Robert Abeyta, a formerly incarcerated individual who was previously housed in SRJ, gave testimony of this, recounting his experience at SRJ.
Abeyta had asthma for a long time, and needed several different inhalers. SRJ staff kept the rescue inhalers away from him– sometimes he suffered asthma attacks and did not have his asthma inhalers for hours.
Abeyta also suffers from sleep apnea and was denied access to a CPAP machine while incarcerated because he could not afford to purchase the thousand-dollar device. The only way he was able to obtain the CPAP machine was through the efforts of NGL-SF and Lina Garcia-Schmidt.
“I went through not having a CPAP for the first month I was there, and I stayed awake for almost 30 days…because I couldn’t sleep without it.” said Abeyta during the press conference, “We obtained several court orders, but [ACSO] would just ignore them.”
At one point, Abeyta was in need of a wheelchair while in custody, but the deputies intentionally housed him on the top tier.
Similar to Harris, Abeyta was housed on a tier that made navigating extremely difficult. Despite the deputies having knowledge of Abeyta’s need for a wheelchair, Abeyta claimed that the guards would make fun of him while he would attempt to walk up the stairs.
“They won’t do anything preventative really unless they’re forced to.” Abeyta stated. He also detailed how deputies will claim to treat him for any problem he was having, but only if it gets worse.
“While we are appalled by the inhumanity that we are observing, this is the way that Santa Rita operates,” said Yolanda Huang, a civil rights attorney who is also a member of NLG.
Huang made it apparent that Wellpath is a for-profit organization, and that Wellpath gets a “per diem” per inmate, or a certain amount based on the jail population.
“If they provide NO medical services, they get to keep all that money… so they have every incentive not to provide anything over and above, or extra,” said Huang.
Huang also notes that there have been reports where incarcerated people say that the medical staff come up to them and ask when they will be released. This is to determine whether or not they need to take money out of their allocated amount.
“If they have a medical problem and they’re released, then it’s someone else’s financial responsibility, not Santa Rita’s.” Huang continued.
“Their [SRJ’s] standard is… if you’re not dying, if there’s not going to be long-term permanent disability… they can make mistakes, they can be negligent, they can do the very minimum, and as long as you’re not gonna die or lose an organ, it’s okay.” Huang stated.
The DOJ recently concluded an investigation into the conditions and practices of SRJ. In their findings, SRJ’s use of prolonged restrictive housing is in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of those with serious mental illnesses.
Furthermore, SRJ also violates the ADA by not only denying those with mental health disabilities to services, but also failing to provide constitutionally adequate services to those with serious mental health needs, including those at risk for suicide.
“… If there’s space in Santa Rita Jail, they will fill it. Creating a separate facility for mental health care… We feel that is a diversion because the Sheriff is always going to find more people to fill those beds.” said Garcia Schmidt, responding to questions related to an increase in money allocated to the Sheriff’s department.
Jose Bernal, organizing director of the Ella Baker Center, stated that the jail population has decreased by 44 percent over the last decade. However, the Sheriff’s budget has increased by over approximately 90 percent since 2004.
The current budget for the Sheriff’s office is approximately half of a billion dollars.
“The fact that we invest thousands and thousands of dollars to law enforcement to deal with – not treat, not help, not rehabilitate, not heal – mental health crisis defies all rationale and logic.” said Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project and executive director of the Justice Teams Network.
“With Santa Rita, we’ve seen that security concerns – defined broadly – are being used as this blanket excuse to do everything from placing people with mental health issues into solitary confinement, to also disregarding a direct order from a judge to transfer someone forthwith to the hospital.” Garcia-Schmidt stated.
NLG continues to advocate for Harris to secure the appropriate care that he needs.