Santa Rita jail is unacceptably dangerous for both staff and inmates. A chronic and severe staffing shortage is implicated in allegations of inhumane treatment of inmates struggling with mental illness, in-custody suicides and other preventable deaths.
Understaffing is hardly the only problem at the embattled Dublin jail. But it is a critical issue, brought to the forefront by Babu v. Ahern — a December 2018 civil rights class action lawsuit against the correctional facility.
Alameda County Supervisors made the right decision on June 26, voting 3-2 to authorize 450 new positions at the jail. Four expert reports stemming from the federal lawsuit recommend significant remedial changes. Chief among them is a call to staff up. At an estimated $318 million over the next three years, the expansive plan will entail 107 new hires outside the Sheriff’s direct chain of command, including 14 physicians, 50 behavioral health clinicians, and 14 mental health specialists.
As a society, we have a responsibility to ensure public servants who work at the jail and those we place in their care are not exposed to an unnecessary risk of harm. The staffing boost should result in improved mental health care delivery and screening, more programs and out-of-cell time, closer observation of inmates at risk of suicide, and closer supervision of deputies by additional sergeants and lieutenants.
It should also put an end to mandatory overtime for jail staff, which has been the temporary solution to understaffing.
But the lack of trust in Sheriff Gregory Ahern punctuates a deeper problem. Many critics of Ahern are outraged by the hiring plan, and have renewed calls for him to be audited.
The large allocation to the Sheriff warrants our close scrutiny.
The Sheriff’s budget has ballooned over the last five years, going from around $640 million in 2015 to roughly $820 million today. In the same timeframe, Santa Rita’s inmate population has dropped from 3,300 to a pre-pandemic population of around 2,200; it continues to fluctuate, but currently sits at around 2,000.
To improve transparency and accountability of the Sheriff’s Office, the Board of Supervisors should consider establishing a Civilian Oversight Commission and include appointments based on recommendations by community groups, such as the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a civil rights group that has hounded Ahern for years over alleged abuses at the jails.
Alameda County’s jail system needs extensive reforms and civilian oversight. Providing adequate staffing is an encouraging first step that will make the jail a more humane and safe environment. Moving forward, the Sheriff’s Office has an opportunity to transform Santa Rita into a model for others to follow.