Despite hundreds of objections from incarcerated class members, their families and civil rights groups, U.S District Judge Nathaniel Cousins rules in favor of costly Santa Rita Jail consent decree
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 7, 2022
Email inquiries: [email protected]
Yolanda Huang, attorney, 510-329-2140
Kellie Walters, attorney, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, 312-600-4870
Ashley Chambers, Ella Baker Center, [email protected]
OAKLAND, CA – Civil rights groups, attorneys, incarcerated class members, and their families strongly denounced today’s ruling in Babu vs. Ahern after months of organizing to urge a full rejection of the settlement. After listening to hours of emotional testimony from 39 incarcerated class members last Thursday, U.S District Court Judge Nathaniel Cousins issued a written order on February 7th, placing Santa Rita Jail under a ‘consent decree.’ Over the next six years, the Babu v. Ahern settlement will implement changes to the jail’s mental health care system which community advocates and incarcerated people condemned as costly and lacking in true accountability from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO).
“We are very disappointed and denounce this costly consent decree. Despite hours of objections from civil rights groups, community members and incarcerated class members, the judge has decided to essentially green light a massive county jail expansion campaign,” said Jose Bernal, Organizing Director with the Ella Baker Center. “Throwing hundreds of more deputies & millions in taxpayer dollars to ‘fix’ the jail is not only asinine, it’s dangerous and will only result in the further caging, neglect, and abuse of Black and Brown lives. It’s a shame how somehow there’s always money to fund the jail & cop salaries, but there doesn’t seem to be any money to keep public schools open.”
“As someone who was recently released from Santa Rita Jail and housed in the behavior health unit as a pod worker who witnessed the horrors of the jail first hand, I can honestly say that I am extremely disappointed and disheartened with this decision. It is irresponsible for Judge Cousins to have passed this consent decree knowing that it will bring little to no change in the conditions of the jail while giving the appearance of an actual solution,” said Tommy Navarrette.
Tommy continued, “Out of cell times were not increased from what they currently are and the frequency of visits from psychiatrist and clinicians was lessened. No external monitoring or oversight is extremely damaging considering the level of negligence and incompetence that takes place by the sheriff’s department on a daily basis. Over 300 million still unaccounted for from 2020 and now we’re pouring more millions into the hands of a corrupt agency. Absolutely disgracefully. What is it going to take to hold these people accountable?”
The consent decree was a result of years of litigation between the law firm Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld (RBGG) and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO), in what is known as the Babu vs. Ahern case. Remarkably, plaintiffs and defendants in this case both supported the consent decree and both argued adding 259 more sheriff’s deputies to Santa Rita Jail was ‘necessary’ to reach constitutional levels of health care. Yet, civil rights & mental health advocates groups, such as the National Lawyers Guild, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, American Friends Service Committee and the National Alliance for Mental Health, filed legal objections to the proposed settlement.
They argue that jail conditions not only exacerbate but cause mental health issues for those incarcerated. Objecting incarcerated class members insisted that funding ACSO staff does nothing to address the needs of class members and they proposed funding community-based mental health services. By approving the settlement, the ACSO is expected to significantly further grow its staffing over the next 3 years, while at the same time growing its budget by an additional $318 million. The law firm RBGG will also receive at least $4 million in fees. Because Babu lawyers sued for injunctive relief, not damages, class members will not be compensated for the abuses described in the lawsuit.
On September 22, 2021, Judge Cousins issued a preliminary approval of the settlement but later delayed his decision after a massive outpouring of opposition from community members and incarcerated class members. During a court hearing on January 27, Judge Cousins heard directly from those incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail. Despite the length of the hearing and technical difficulties with Global Tel Link, dozens of incarcerated class members called in to give powerful testimony – all detailing accounts of horrid jail conditions and a culture of cruelty by jail deputies – and urged the Judge to reject the settlement.
“Your honor, we need help and this consent decree does not address the issues,” said class member William Epting. “We’re at a moment to effect change in the jail and the consent decree does not reflect in a true light the changes that need to be made at the jail. The court can ensure our security and protection in other ways.”
Community members, though greatly disappointed by this decision, point to the clarity and strength of incarcerated class members who objected to the settlement as ongoing motivation for their advocacy.
Organizing to Reject the Babu Settlement: A group of attorneys, civil rights groups, incarcerated class members, and family members of incarcerated people have organized together in full rejection of the Babu vs. Ahern settlement, and to oppose the expansion of Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail. They believe that the best way to address the harms caused by incarceration is to invest in community resources, not law enforcement or jail expansion. Coalition groups include American Friends Service Committee, Anti Police-Terror Project, Civil rights attorney Yolanda Huang, Critical Resistance Oakland, Ella Baker Center, Homeless Action Center, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, National Lawyers Guild – San Francisco Bay Area, Oakland Abolition & Solidarity, Psychologist for Social Responsibility, Restore Oakland, and Young Women’s Freedom Center.