By Jake Romero
DUBLIN, CA — The National Lawyers Guild – San Francisco Bay Area Chapter (NLG-SFBA) hosted an online press conference Wednesday morning where civil rights organizations objected to a proposed settlement in a lawsuit against Alameda County Sheriff’s Office concerning jail conditions and mental healthcare for inmates.
Organizations represented at the conference—which support the lawsuit but disagree with the settlement—include Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Critical Resistance and the American Friends Service Committee.
The law firm of Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld (RBGG) filed the class action lawsuit in 2018 for reasons of cruelty and failure to provide mental health care, due process or disability accommodations for incarcerated individuals in Alameda County.
Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins previously approved the settlement during a preliminary hearing in September 2021. The result of the lawsuit’s final hearing Wednesday has not yet been made public. Speakers at the news conference urged Judge Cousins to reject the settlement.
Yolanda Huang, a civil rights attorney who has assisted with filing prisoner objections, called the settlement “hysterical” and a “sham” because it would grant $21 million to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and increase the budget to nearly half a billion dollars.
She suggested living stipends and housing for incarcerated individuals with mental health needs would be more effective and less expensive.
“There are other solutions that we have to look at,” Huang said. “Throwing money at a problem doesn’t fix the problem, and throwing money at this problem is just going to be money flushed down the toilet.”
In May 2020, Alameda County approved a $318 million budget request over a three-year period for Santa Rita Jail.
Jose Bernal, director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said the settlement is simply jail expansion that would add roughly 250 deputies to the jail staff.
The settlement would also grant $4 million to RBGG, according to Huang, which is another reason for the objection as inmates have expressed discontent with their law firm for inadequately representing their interests.
Attorney Kellie Walters, who works with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, noted the classification in RBGG’s proposal is extremely broad as it includes anyone who could be charged with a crime in the future.
She explained that the broadness of this classification validates the objections filed by the organizations and affected parties opposing the settlement, noting the court must consider adequacy of relief as part of the consent decree in approving the settlement.
“Adequacy of relief is clearly not there,” Walters said. “The complaint initially concerned the mental health of the prisoners at Santa Rita, and [the settlement] does not address the mental health… the County, in fact, filters money from mental health services to the staffing of (more deputies) and the building of more walls.”
There was unanimous agreement at Wednesday’s news conference that individuals with mental illness do not belong in jail and that the jail setting only contributes to or exacerbates poor mental health, which in turn causes higher recidivism rates.
One woman, Elvira Monk, told of her brother who entered Santa Rita Jail early last October and died six weeks later in custody.
She said her brother was schizophrenic and bipolar and the deputies did not provide her with a Fax number so she could send medical care information, right up until the day he died. Monk also said she has still not received an autopsy report.
Two speakers joined the video conference from outside of Santa Rita Jail and read incarcerated complaint statements they documented while volunteering as hotline operators.
“There are people in here washing their faces with toilet water,” read one statement from a Black female inmate. The woman said the prisoner was uncomfortable with the number of white male guards, and insisted she needs mental healthcare from a woman of color unaffiliated with the jail.
The volunteers also reported a huge 30 percent increase in commissary prices that occurred shortly before Christmas, citing inmate discontent over having to pay more for foods that are neither nourishing nor safe to eat.
Attorney Huang said earlier dozens of inmates have been on a complete hunger strike at the jail to protest the high commissary prices.
“This is a captive audience, and they’re often dealing with food that has rat feces in it, is disgusting and has no nutritional value,” one volunteer said. “There’s no reason that people who don’t have the ability to procure their own food should not have the ability to eat enough calories and feel satiated.”