[Pnews] Justice Department: Alameda County violates rights of mental health patients, inmates
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sun Apr 25 10:59:35 EDT 2021
Department: Alameda County violates rights of mental health patients,
Raheem Hosseini, Nora Mishanec - April 24, 2021
Alameda County is violating the U.S. Constitution by “unnecessarily
institutionalizing” people with mental health needs and by subjecting them
to “prolonged” solitary confinement in the county jail, the Justice
Department concluded after a five-year investigation.
The Justice Department delivered its strongly worded findings to Alameda
County and its Sheriff’s Office on Thursday, along with an attachment that
summarized the ways in which inadequate mental health care traps Alameda
County residents who need it in a cycle of jail and psychiatric
“Santa Rita Jail fails to provide constitutionally adequate mental health
treatment, resulting in worsening mental health conditions for prisoners
with serious mental health needs, repeated stays at John George
(Psychiatric Hospital), and, at times, serious physical harm and death,”
the Justice Department summary states. “Santa Rita Jail subjects prisoners
with serious mental illness to prolonged periods of restrictive housing
under conditions that place them at a substantial risk of serious harm. The
Jail also denies prisoners with mental health disabilities equal access to
programming and transition services.
“As a result, many adults who rely on Alameda County for mental health
services are without access to services that would allow them to recover,
and instead end up cycling in and out of psychiatric institutions or
incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail.”
The Alameda County Board of Supervisors was briefed on the Justice
Department findings during its regular planning meeting Thursday morning,
said Sayeh Ahmari, spokeswoman for Supervisor David Haubert, who was
unavailable for comment.
“We are already addressing a lot of those issues raised in the DOJ report
through the lawsuit Babu v. Ahern case,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly,
referring to a federal lawsuit
brought by Ashok Babu and seven other jail inmates with psychiatric
disabilities. “We are going through that litigation as we speak.”
Babu alleged he was held in isolation in Santa Rita Jail for 23 hours a day
for six weeks before being transferred to John George and then back into
isolation. Kelly said a federal monitor was appointed by the court in that
case to address the mental health and ADA compliance issues the lawsuit
“These are issues we’ve been working on for some time in the existing
federal lawsuit,” Kelly said. “We are already addressing these issues.”
The Justice Department first notified Alameda County officials that it
opened an investigation in January 2017, nearly two years before Babu and
his co-plaintiffs alleged cruel and unusual punishment in their lawsuit.
The probe involved visits to the jail in Dublin, John George Psychiatric
Hospital in San Leandro, other county psychiatric facilities as well as
board and care homes, where federal investigators and psychiatrists
interviewed staff, patients, providers and others.
Federal investigators determined that the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office,
which operates Santa Rita Jail, failed “to provide constitutionally
adequate mental health care to prisoners with serious mental health needs,
including those at risk of suicide,” and that the jail’s “use of prolonged
restrictive housing under current conditions violates the Eighth and
Fourteenth Amendment rights of prisoners with serious mental illness.”
The fact that inmates with mental health disabilities were denied access to
jail services, programs and activities was also a violation of the American
with Disabilities Act, the Justice Department concluded.
Federal investigators made their last visit to the jail in August 2019.
While investigators noted “some positive steps,” the Justice Department’s
Civil Rights Division wrote in a 45-page report that it remained “concerned
that there has been little actual progress to resolve the discrimination
that is occurring in the County’s mental health system and the
unconstitutional conditions and discrimination in the Santa Rita Jail.”
The federal rebuke comes at the same time that disability and mental health
advocates are calling attention to what they contend are abject racial
disparities regarding who is most likely to be institutionalized against
their will in Alameda County.
The nonprofit organization Disability Rights California and three other
groups sued Alameda County in federal court last year over the treatment of
people with mental health issues. A year later, the co-plaintiffs say that
institutional racism is inextricably woven into the fabric of who is put in
jail or a psychiatric hospital.
“We are thrilled the Department of Justice has turned a corner, and is
examining how the mental health system’s deficiencies contribute to
problems in the criminal justice system,” Ira A. Burnim, legal director at
the Bazelon Center for Mental Health, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit,
said in a statement Friday. “I also hope that the racial inequities,
particularly for Black community members who have experienced the brunt of
the County’s failures, will receive the attention they deserve.”
While Black people represent 11% of Alameda County’s population,
<https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/alamedacountycalifornia> they make up
47% of the county’s homeless population, 48% of the Santa Rita jail
population and 53% of people identified by the mental health system as both
“justice involved” and “high utilizer(s),” meaning they’re more likely to
be subjected to psychiatric institutionalization, Disability Rights and its
legal partners determined in their own investigation.
“You’re five times as likely to be in Santa Rita (Jail) if you’re Black ...
and it’s essentially the same racial disparity with getting psychiatrically
institutionalized,” said Berkeley attorney Aaron J. Fischer, a co-counsel
in the federal lawsuit.
“I call it ‘the coin toss,’” Fischer continued. “If you’re a person who’s
having a psychological crisis in Alameda County, it’s like a coin toss as
to whether you end up in the jail or in the psychiatric facility. And the
reality is that with the right community-based services, a person is much
less likely to reach that point in the first place.”
Fischer said the Justice Department typically mounts these broad civil
rights investigations on state mental health systems, but mental health
care in California is provided at the county level.
In an email notifying Alameda County of the Justice Department’s damning
findings that The Chronicle obtained, KateLyn Smith, an investigator with
the Special Litigation Section-Civil Rights Division, said it was the Biden
administration’s intent to work with local officials.
“It is our intention to work with Alameda County to remedy the violations
identified within this report,” Smith wrote. “We welcome any ideas you may
have about such reforms.”
*Raheem Hosseini and Nora Mishanec are San Francisco Chronicle staff
writers. Email: raheem.hosseini at sfchronicle.com
<raheem.hosseini at sfchronicle.com>, nora.mishanec at sfchronicle.com
<nora.mishanec at sfchronicle.com> Twitter: @raheemfh
<https://twitter.com/raheemfh>, @NMishanec <https://twitter.com/NMishanec>*
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