Santa Rita Jail Prisoners Object to $100 Million ‘Abusive, Unsanitary’ Jail Lawsuit Settlement – Claim Lawyers Sold Them Out

By Cres Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

DUBLIN, CA – More than 100 incarcerated here in Alameda County Santa Rita Jail have announced they are rejecting an expected $100 million settlement as a result of a lawsuit over “abusive, unsanitary” jail conditions—and prisoners charged their lawyers sold them out.

They’ll know more Wednesday when a Northern District Court will hear the objections.

Meanwhile, a new lawyer for the prisoners said dozens of other prisoners at the jail have been on a month-long hunger strike over commissary costs, claiming the jail has tripled costs.

The proposed $100 million annual settlement in the Babu v. County of Alameda lawsuit should be tossed because it does little for the incarcerated and would, instead, cause massive hiring of more jail guards, said Yolanda Huang, who has agreed to represent the incarcerated.

Huang’s entrance into the suit—the Bay Area civil rights attorney is known for representing Santa Rita individuals in civil actions for many years—came after the prisoners said the firm of Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld, have not “adequately represented the interests of incarcerated people.”

“The settlement is expected to cost Alameda County more than $100 million a year, but rather than help the incarcerated will add hundreds more Sheriff Deputies than needed mental health staff,” a press statement Huang issued said Tuesday.

The jailed in Santa Rita Jail “object because the settlement would not prevent abusive treatment and mental illness for incarcerated people. Many prisoners also objected that the settlement would invest County resources into jail staff rather than needed social services,” according to the statement.

The National Lawyers Guild-SFBA said it was contacted and that it had “coordinated pro bono legal support” to help them file objections to the court settlement.  “Huang agreed to represent prisoners filing objections to give them a voice in settlement discussions,” they said.

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the National Lawyers Guild – SF Bay Area Chapter, American Friends Service Committee, and Critical Resistance – Oakland, filed their own legal brief.

The pleading charged the settlement “represents collusion between litigation attorneys and the County because the County began plans to fund this settlement nearly two years ago, including but not limited to depleting the funds that otherwise could have been used for mental health services.”

Even a former state senator objects to the settlement deal.

Former California State Senator Loni Hancock filed a statement with the Court “strenuously” objecting to the settlement’s proposal to “enlarge and prop up this failed system rather than address the real solution: adequate care of persons with mental illness in the community, and a place to which they can be diverted in crisis.”

Jail critics said, “Incarceration disproportionately harms African Americans, who are 11 percent of the County population but comprise 48 percent of the jail population and more than a third of the behavioral health re-entry population,” and suggest reducing the jail population as a means of reaching constitutional levels of mental health care.”

“There are some people who are all the way gone, meaning they should be in a mental hospital,” said prisoner William Epting. “Sending people to hospitals in the community would not only be best for their safety, it would provide a structured environment to be able to improve mentally.”

And, Tommy Navarrette, currently incarcerated in one of the jail’s mental health units, said, “The way the Jail is organized, the culture of the institution, and the attitude of Deputies makes it impossible to actually provide mental health care.”

Navarrette also claims that, under the settlement, he would actually see a mental health clinician less often than he does now.

The incarcerated women at the jail said they object because the plan says only that “mental health programming and care available for women [must be] equivalent to the range of services offered to men.”

“Deputies are willing to hurt and abuse women,” added Shawanda Black, who said she was pepper-sprayed by deputies for “talking back” after the murder of George Floyd.

According to a press statement, prisoners said the settlement would “not prevent abuses because jail compliance will be monitored by experts who will tour the jail only twice per year and produce reports which will be kept confidential.”

“I believe that it is my right to access information regarding the monitoring of a public institution,” wrote prisoner William Epting. “Not only class members but the press and the Public Health Department should have access to monitors’ reports.” Epting and others have called for the settlement to be rewritten.

Psychologists for Social Responsibility noted, “We are dismayed at what seems a fetid bone thrown to a group of people who are in need of genuine care. An anonymous survey was sent out to the inmates, and their responses revealed their intense dissatisfaction with its provisions.”

Objections to the proposed Babu settlement can be viewed here:
https://www.dropbox.com/sh/gvxw1y4na9fw158/AADZLk61__e7KQ305v2-z3tBa?dl=0

More excerpts from objections to the proposed Babu settlement for Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail:

The following comments by incarcerated objecting to the settlement comes from a press statement provided to the Vanguard by the legal team:

Michael Castillo: “I OBJECT to the Settlement, because the proposed Settlement only says the button has to work. (ECF 166-1, p. 49/110) The proposed Settlement says nothing about requiring the deputies to respond, when someone hits the button. The proposed Settlement says nothing about requiring the technicians to respond, when someone hits the button. In this situation, my injuries could have been prevented if they responded responsibly when John told them he was having a mental illness crisis.  Instead, both the deputy and the technician ignored the situation. It was awful that when I was hitting the button, over and over, the Technician’s response was to recite a prayer, and Deputy Sharp, seeing the water on the floor, seeing my roommate anxious and upset, and hearing my roommate say he was hearing voices and wanted to be taken out of the cell, does nothing and leaves.”

Tommy Navarette: “I OBJECT to this proposed Settlement because while there is a need to separate people who are seriously mentally ill, the Therapeutic Housing Unit as it is described wouldn’t sufficiently separate people who should not be in jail at all, but in a mental hospital. Where I am currently incarcerated in Housing Unit 1, there is an inmate who screams all night. Guys like that tend to get beat up in jail, both by prisoners and by Deputies – because people just don’t know how to deal with it and don’t have the patience. The ‘systems’ in place for these people are not actual systems. Apparently, it’s nobody’s job to make these guys eat, nobody’s job to make these guys shower. In here, you are going to fall through the cracks if you have serious issues.”

James Pace: “In Cell 1 there is an older Black man in his 50’s or early 60’s. He talks to himself a lot and walks around with ripped sheets over his face like a mummy. When the deputies put him in his cell, he bangs incessantly on his door. He yells ‘argh, argh!’ loudly, almost at a roar, for thirty minutes at a time. When it’s time for a meal, the guards yell at him – ‘Sit on your bunk!’ When he sits down, the guard throws his food tray onto the floor. No one removes his old trays and they pile up, smelling and molding.”

William Epting: “I OBJECT to this proposed Settlement because it would not result in sufficient oversight nor accountability for ACSO. The public is not getting important information under the current monitoring. For real change to occur, outside monitors would need to be truly independent and to be able to visit us at the drop of a hat. Right now, everyone from Washington could come here and they still wouldn’t see anything! It is unacceptable for monitors to come only twice per year. To effectively monitor this Jail, independent monitors would, at minimum need access to review camera footage from the PODs on a regular basis, because ACSO hides the reality of conditions in the following ways:

  1. When tours arrive to inspect the Jail, ACSO engages in diversion tactics to delay visitors’ arrival to the mental health units. They will hold visitors up front at the desk while they clean up mental health patients and their cells.
  2. In the past, when RBGG has toured the jail ACSO does not allow Class Lawyers to do a cell-by-cell walkthrough. To discourage this they will tell visitors, ‘We can’t let you in to see them because they’re “gassers.” You don’t want to go in there.’”

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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