Judge Cousins Approves Santa Rita Consent Decree Despite Vigorous Objections by Incarcerated People at the Jail

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

San Francisco, CA – A little over a week after United States Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins spent the day listening to the testimony of some 41 incarcerated people objecting to the Consent Decree, the judge formally granted the decree.

“[T]he Consent Decree reflects the strength of Plaintiffs’ case as well as the Defendants’ position,” Judge Cousins wrote.  “The parties extensively evaluated the merits of the case and their positions, and settlement at this time will avoid substantial costs to all parties and avoid the delay and risks presented by further litigation.”

He added, “The Court is also satisfied that the Consent Decree was reached after intensive and prolonged arm’s length negotiations by capable counsel, with input from the United States Department of Justice and under the supervision United States District Court Northern District of California of Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler.”

But not everyone agrees.  Community organizations and civil rights attorneys who objected to the settlement in Babu v. County of Alameda say that they are consulting with incarcerated people about whether to appeal the judge’s order to approve the settlement.

Objecting prisoners and their counsel have 30 days to appeal the decision, which would be heard in the Ninth Circuit.

“The Babu settlement makes winners out of the Sheriff at the expense of those of us in the facility,” said Tiara Arnold, who says that she has experienced retaliation from the jail for helping fellow incarcerated women prepare for the hearing.

“It is disappointing that Judge Cousins heard 5.5 hours of testimony from inmates, and yet hardly responded in his order to their comments,” said Yolanda Huang, attorney for objecting class members.

Huang said that numerous class members have contacted her office about an appeal.

“Inmates objected because the decree, while taking away their rights to petition the courts about conditions at the jail, does not improve the conditions for the majority of the prisoners,” Huang explained. “Inmates call the jail culture at Santa Rita a ‘culture of cruelty’ and cite this as a primary reason that the settlement is ineffective: it does not recognize nor address the basic cultural framework of the jail.”

Alfonso Arroyo said that he was “disappointed to learn that the order did not respond directly to class member concerns” and believes that the settlement doesn’t adequately address conditions in non-“safety” cells.

“Legally,” Huang said, “the approval process violated due process because it will prevent people who are incarcerated in the future from challenging the settlement, but failed to provide them with adequate notice. Judge Cousins rationalized this failure by saying that future inmates will be given notice when they enter the jail.  But Judge Cousins, with his order, has already ordered the forfeiture, in absentia, of the rights of future inmates: a serious constitutional violation.”

The judge wrote that “the extent of discovery completed and the stage of proceedings support approval. The last four years of factual investigation and legal analysis were substantial. Even before filing the complaint, Class Counsel spent hundreds of hours communicating with incarcerated individuals by phone and in writing to understand the Jail’s inhumane conditions. After filing the complaint, Class Counsel reviewed over 57,000 pages of documents, attended multiple tours of the Jail over approximately eight days, and retained neutral experts to investigate and render reports on the conditions in the Jail. The discovery process has been thorough.”

He noted, “[N]umerous objectors implored that the Jail should not be the County’s primary mental health care facility. The Court whole-heartedly agrees with this sentiment.”

The judge explained, “Approval of this Consent Decree is not intended to prevent Defendants or Alameda County from funding community-based mental health services. However, the Court cannot direct the County on how to allocate its finances. Ultimately, the decision to fund certain institutions over others is the County’s. And if the County chooses to continue funding a jail, the Court seeks to ensure that the conditions in that jail are constitutional.”

But the objectors push back arguing, “Alameda County is now legally committed to dedicating more than $100 million a year to hire over 400 new jail staff.”

One of the written objections requested that Judge Cousins at least order further discovery before making his decision. He denied that request, stating that the discovery was adequate.

John Lindsay-Poland, who objected to the settlement on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee, argued that the staffing data show that the county will fail to meet these benchmarks.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs believe that this agreement will lead to “fundamental” and “transformative changes at Santa Rita Jail.”

Jeffrey Bornstein, a partner at Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld representing plaintiffs said, “People are suffering and dying right now in the jail because they are locked down and isolated without mental health care.  We believe that the court’s order will lay the foundation for urgently needed change, including ending the use of punitive measures such as isolation and lack of out of cell time, while ensuring that there are vigorous mental health care, educational and other treatment program opportunities available throughout the jail.”

“People have been suffering in the jail for years and the changes embodied in the Consent Decree are long overdue,” added Kara Janssen, Senior Counsel at RBGG.  “Now that the Consent Decree is approved we can finally begin to enforce its requirements and bring relief to those in the Jail.”

Judge Cousin concluded that “the Court is convinced that a reform is necessary and the increase provided by the Consent Decree, while perhaps not…ideal, is markedly better than the current situation.”

An attorney for the objectors commented that “it is unfortunate that we will settle for ‘good enough’ when considering peoples’ lives.”

The Babu case is a federal class action lawsuit challenging: the adequacy of mental health care and treatment at the jail; suicide prevention and the use of safety cells; overuse of isolation and adequacy of out-of-cell time; access to programs, services and activities especially for persons with mental health disabilities; discharge planning for people with mental health disabilities; sufficiency of accommodations in disciplinary proceedings and in pre-planned use-of-force incidents for persons with mental health disabilities; and the overall policies, procedures, and practices regarding COVID-19 on behalf of all people incarcerated at the Jail.

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.

The Court granted preliminary approval of the Consent Decree on September 24, 2021.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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