Deputies allegedly tortured mentally ill people at Santa Rita Jail. The answer isn’t more deputies

While imprisoned in Santa Rita Prison in Dublin, Ashok Babu asserted that he was held in isolation for 23 hours a day for six weeks in the midst of a mental health crisis, something the United Nations equated with psychological torture. He then spent nearly 15 months on an “extensive probation record,” a form of suicide monitoring in which he was placed alone in a cell with only a hole in the floor to relieve himself. Individuals in this state cannot participate in entertainment or programming, are denied socks and underwear, and have no access to toothbrushes or other basic hygiene.

Babu is not alone in his treatment. He is one of eight plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against Alameda County in 2018. The lawsuit alleges that the prison denied medical treatment and punished those incarcerated for behavior stemming from their health conditions.

Rather than go into a lawsuit over these terms, Babu’s attorneys negotiated a settlement with the county that was announced on August 26. The imprisoned plaintiffs will not receive any monetary compensation from this settlement. Instead, it will force improvements to regional mental health care based on recommendations from experts who previously worked for the California Department of Corrections and “rehabilitation” system.

If approved, the settlement commits Alameda County, the Department of Behavioral Health Services and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to significantly reform mental health programs and create a new “treatment housing unit.” Last month, the case’s chief case officer said he would agree to the settlement assuming there were no major objections.

Good news, isn’t it?

A coalition of civil rights advocates, community organizations, inmates and ex-prisoners… says no.

Hundreds of objections from detained persons have already been collected and more are being drafted. That’s because instead of investing in mental health services that would prevent incarceration and re-arrest, the settlement is resorting to a trick familiar in the sheriff’s office guide: hiring more deputies.

The settlement will add 259 new MPs. Meanwhile, Alameda County will employ less than half that number in new mental health clinics.

Experts in the Bapu case said reducing the prison population is a strategy to alleviate staffing shortages, reduce spending in the county and provide better and more consistent mental health care.

This is not even mentioned in the settlement.

Since 2014, 50 people have been killed in Santa Rita. Of these, 19 were described as suicidal.


Suicide is the most drastic expression of a mental health crisis, and the mayor’s department has done a poor job of preventing it. According to Babu Complaining, Representatives in Santa Rita are actively working to “exacerbate the psychological trauma experienced by prisoners with serious mental health conditions who are housed in isolation.”

Why give them more money and more responsibility?

Santa Rita Prison is already the largest mental health service provider in Alameda County.

Shame on us.

Alameda isn’t the first county to call for shifting mental health care away from law enforcement. In 2019, community organizers successfully pushed the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to cancel a $2 billion contract to build a prison for inmates with mental health issues. Instead, the community has shifted focus and funds toward community mental health treatment and support.

“For decades, Los Angeles has criminalized people with mental illness,” Patrice Colors, one of the lead organizers of this effort and co-founder of Black Lives Matter told me. For decades, organizers, educators, artists, and advocates have been pressing to challenge this war against mostly black and brown people with disabilities. Groups such as JusticeLA, Reform LA Jails, and Re-imagine LA successfully discontinued the prison plan, but then developed a range of resources away from the carceral system into alternatives to imprisonment.”

While Babu’s lawyers argued that pushing this settlement as soon as possible was the best way to prevent further suicides or other tragedies, many in the community arguing the opposite is true. They assert that this settlement is exactly what Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern wants: more money to hire an additional 259 deputies while keeping the chapter low on the radar.

Alameda County definitely needs a new mental health facility. But, just like Los Angeles, we need one Not It is rooted in imprisonment and criminalization.

Prisons should not provide mental health services. (Prisons shouldn’t be in business at all. A girl can dream)

People incarcerated in Santa Rita need counseling and mental health care that promotes emotional stability — not the mixture of psychotropic substances currently used to treat inmates until they comply. Achieving this will require extending the time frame for approval of the final settlement beyond 90 days, transparent monitoring, allowing community members and prisoners to testify about their concerns, striking additional deputies from the settlement and emphasizing the need for community mental health in the revised settlement approved by the community.

The people who run Santa Rita have demonstrated themselves emphatically and repeatedly that they do not care, nor are they able, to take care of people in crises. It is unacceptable to continue to subject humans to this treatment, let alone to extend it.

Kat Brooks is an award-winning actress and playwright, executive director of the Justice Teams Network, co-founder of the Police Counterterrorism Project, an advocacy organization that also provides mental health crisis counseling, and co-host of UpFront on KPFA.

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