By David M. Greenwald
Oakland, CA – United States Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins patiently waded through over five hours of comments from class members currently incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail, braving technological challenges and frequent interruptions to the testimony as 41 people spoke their mind in objection to the agreement—many raising serious and troubling concerns.
In August 2021, after nearly three years of factual investigation, tours, and negotiation, the parties entered into a Consent Decree to resolve all class and subclass claims for injunctive relief raised in this case regarding conditions at the jail.
On January 19, 2022, the Court held a hearing on Plaintiffs’ motion for final settlement approval. After opening the floor to objectors, the Court continued the hearing to January 27, 2022, to hear from currently incarcerated people at the Santa Rita Jail.
“Many of the comments we heard today described abhorrent conditions in Santa Rita Jail, including lack of out-of-cell time, lack of access to programs, lack of meaningful mental healthcare, overuse of force and need for improved discharge, planning, and training,” said attorney Kara Janssen one of the plaintiff’s attorneys. “All of which are addressed and detailed in the consent decree.”
She added, “These provisions were not reached quickly or in a rush. This case was filed in 2018 and the consent decree occur as a result of years of investigation, including extensive tours of the jail itself. The concerns raised by the department of justice and its report from April of 2021 were not ignored.”
Janssen noted, “Objectors are correct that the jail has not met its promises in the past. Conditions in the jail have been terrible for years with minimal improvement.”
But she believes, “This consent decree, if approved will finally change that it does provide extensive oversight, accountability, and the enforceability, which many objectors asked for.”
Samantha Wolff, the attorney representing the defense said, “Many of the comments that we heard here today, echo the allegations in plaintiff’s complaint and underscore the need to adopt the consent decree. The concerns that were raised relating to out of cell time, mental health treatment, insufficient staffing and programming training grievances use of force among others are all addressed in the consent decree.”
She also acknowledged, “Ancillary but important topics were also raised today, but those are not the subject of this lawsuit and they are outside the scope of plaintiff’s motion for final approval.” She added that “there were also many demonstrably false claims today that are easily refuted.”
Jason Brown, one of the class members stated, “I feel that the jail doesn’t need to hire more sheriffs, they need to hire more mental health professionals. Hiring more sheriffs is not addressing the mental health issues going on in this jail, it’s hiring more hands to enforce instead of helping. They need more people to help with mental health issues.”
David Misch noted that he has been incarcerated since March 2018 in the unit 1 segregation, and complained that, despite having extreme issues of depression and manic behavior, “I have received barely a once a month visit from a mental health care worker.”
He noted that there is “no continuity in treatment” and often he can’t trust a caseworker not to overreact and put him on suicide watch, which means no clothes and only a blanket and a mattress.
He said, “Knowing your case worker is a trust issue and privacy issue. There is no privacy to talk to a case worker.” And he described mostly having to talk through a cell door.
William Eptiing said, “I strongly object to the settlement agreement because it does not fix the problems here at the jail.” He noted that deputies provide security, “but mental health must have power to do their jobs without fear of losing their jobs and they need power to make final decisions about mental health care.”
There were frequent complaints about isolation during COVID, excessive use of force from sheriff’s deputies, retaliation, and lack of mental health treatment.
George Banks noted, “I don’t agree with the (consent decree).” He said, “Deputies are not qualified to give mental health services. They are trained to do certain things. They overlook needs of inmates.”
He added, “I don’t think that nine weeks of training officers is adequate to deal with mental health issues when they don’t care about us personally.”
Banks continued, “If you need someone to talk you off the ledge, you need someone with compassion. These officers are here to facilitate and secure and that’s where their mindset is—they’re not coming in with compassion. We see them with their Tasers and uniforms on, and that automatically makes the inmate combative.”
Trevor Simpson explained, “This is my first time in jail. When I first came down, I was wrongfully classified as MH patient and placed in MAX greens. During short time there before bailing out and coming back, I noticed that, for one, the deps do not listen to inmates at all. If you ask for help with anything they act like you aren’t speaking to them at all.”
Brandon Burns said, “I have been assaulted by deputies and afterward laughed at, then maliciously prosecuted to cover their wrongdoing. I do not have mental disabilities nor am I mentally ill, but I struggle with feelings of anxiety and hopelessness from these situations. I know deputies will not be held accountable for their actions.”
Nicole Bratton, a mother of three and community advocate thanked Judge Cousins “for allowing us to have a voice and an experience that we matter.”
She said, “Since incarceration I’ve learned about the Babu settlement. I don’t agree. Being incarcerated is a traumatic experience and continues to be due to factors impacting mental health and mental health of overs. Not conducive to health.”
She explained, “This jail is overly saturated with people suffering from mental illness, PTSD, and other medical conditions that cannot be met by deputies and limited medical staff who interact with incarcerated people in disrespectful manner. Deputies set the tone for how staff and medical staff treat us. There is a lack of trained, empathetic, caring therapists and medical professionals to address ongoing needs.”
Following the hearing and statements from counsel, Judge Cousins indicated that a written order would follow.
In a release from plaintiffs’ attorneys prior to the hearing on Thursday, the plaintiff attorneys urged that judge approve the settlement.
“We don’t accept the false choice between reforming the criminal justice system and taking care of the people in the jail,” said Jeffrey Bornstein of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld, co-counsel for plaintiffs. “People are suffering and dying right now in Santa Rita Jail because they are locked down and isolated without mental health care. The objections raised by non-party community objectors at the hearing of January 19 focused on closing or otherwise restricting who can be sent to the Jail, laudable goals that the County can begin to address to some extent with diversion, housing and vocational programs especially with respect to those with mental health issues”
Bornstein continued, “Maybe closing the jail is the perfect choice. But we don’t have the option of letting our clients continue to suffer and die while we wait for the perfect solution. The fact is that we can do both. We can bring services into the jail to protect the people who are there while at the same time demanding that Alameda County’s elected leaders reduce the number of people who are sent there.”
“There has been no meaningful mental health care treatment in the jail for many years and this settlement when implemented fully will lead to significant change,” added Kara Janssen. “The Consent Decree mandates comprehensive mental health services including, regular mental health rounds, electronic tracking of referrals, prompt delivery of medication, group therapy, treatment planning teams, creation of confidential spaces for services, and discharge planning including coordinating with community-based mental health services. The Consent Decree also sets new, significantly higher minimum requirements for out-of-cell time.”
However, Bridget Cervelli a volunteer from the Santa Rita Jail Hotline and formerly incarcerated at the Santa Rita Jail agrees with the testimony at yesterday’s hearing objecting to the proposed settlement.
“We are in hopes that the consent decree is rejected. It is essentially a big win for the Sheriff and RBGG and provides no guarantee of improvement, no transparency and was decided without consulting any of the people who objected today,” Bridget Cervelli told the Vanguard in a statement on Friday morning.
She noted, “they keep touting the input of ‘experts’ when the real expertise is contained within the five hours of testimony from incarcerated class members that they discount.”
If approved, Cervelli added, “it will be a $4 million+ payout for RBGG and a provide the sheriff millions of dollars to hire over 250 new deputies and build “therapeutic cells” that are not clearly defined (jail expansion).”