Oakland, CA, December 21, 2018 – Attorneys for prisoners with serious mental health illness in Alameda County’s two county jails have filed a class action in federal court against Alameda County alleging that prisoners with psychiatric disabilities are being held in isolation in small, filthy cells for 23 to 24 hours per day with little or no treatment, resulting in deaths and terrible suffering.   Complaint available here: Babu v County of Alameda COMPLAINT (Class Action) for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, 12-21-2018

This civil rights class action lawsuit seeks to remedy the dangerous, discriminatory, and unconstitutional conditions in the Glenn Dyer Detention Facility in Oakland and the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. 

“We are particularly concerned about the way people in Alameda County jails with mental disabilities are isolated, disciplined, kept from participating in programs and at times subjected to conditions of confinement that are akin to torture,” said Jeffrey Bornstein of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld (“RBGG”), an attorney for plaintiffs.

According to the complaint, “The Alameda County Jail system is broken, especially when it comes to the way it treats people with psychiatric disabilities.  Due to understaffing, poor management, and lack of treatment space, Alameda County relies almost entirely on the unconstitutional use of isolation to manage prisoners, including prisoners with significant disabilities and mental health needs, resulting in horrific suffering.  Alameda County’s use of isolation has had tragic consequences and, over the last five years, at least thirty-three individuals incarcerated in the Alameda County Jails have died, including thirteen individuals who committed suicide with many more unsuccessful attempts. These deaths are not isolated tragedies but rather are indicative of the harsh and unconstitutional conditions in the Jails.”

“Instead of working to ensure that prisoners with psychiatric disorders receive necessary care and treatment, county personnel punish these prisoners by placing them in isolation with little or no out of cell time, access to the outside or meaningful treatment from mental health professionals, ” said Ernest Galvan of RBGG.  “Unbelievably, conditions are even worse for prisoners who are considered suicidal.”

The complaint explains, “Prisoners who are suicidal are thrown into what are referred to as ‘safety cells’ where they are stripped naked and given only a smock to cover themselves.  The safety cells contain no furniture and only a hole in the ground for prisoners to use as a bathroom, meaning that prisoners have to sleep and eat on the same floor that they must also urinate and defecate on and are also unable to wash their hands after going to the bathroom.  Prisoners in the safety cells are not allowed any out of cell time and are not allowed to keep any personal possessions in the safety cells, including reading material and toilet paper.   By Jail policy, prisoners can be confined for up to 72 hours in these cells.  Yet, prisoners have been forced to stay in such cells for a week or more at a time.  Conditions so bad, prisoners have stopped reporting suicidal feelings to staff in order to avoid being thrown into safety cells.”

In terms of remedies, “Plaintiffs seek a declaration that Defendants’ ongoing practices violate their constitutional and statutory rights, and injunctive relief compelling Defendants to (1) cease the harmful, excessive and unconstitutional use of isolation; (2) provide due process to prisoners regarding their placement in isolation; (3) provide prisoners with psychiatric disabilities meaningful access to the Jails’ programs, services, and activities, including by housing them in the least restrictive setting appropriate to their needs; (4) provide constitutionally adequate mental health care; and (5) stop and/or limit the use of safety cells to only those prisoners who truly need them for the short term before they are transferred to a hospital.”

 The case is Babu v. County of Alameda, United States District Court, Northern District of California, Case 4:18-cv-07677, filed December 21, 2018.

Selected media coverage

Alameda County jail lawsuit alleges bad conditions for inmates with mental illness, East Bay Times, December 21, 2018

Class action claims women exposed to severe sleep deprivation, Courthouse News Service, December 31, 2018 (RBGG’s Ernest Galvan is quoted about Babu v. County of Alameda in the second half of this article, which leads with a description of a different lawsuit.)

The most dangerous place in Alameda CountyEast Bay Express, May 7, 2019

Death rate at Santa Rita exceeds nation’s largest jail system as critics call for reform, KTVU, October 1, 2019

Former inmates face delay in Medi-Cal coverage upon release from jail, Oakland North, November 18, 2019

Family seeks to shed light on Marine’s death, California’s lax isolation laws, KTVU, November 24, 2019