Santa Rita Jail

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors last week approved spending $318 million over the next three years to buttress staffing at its controversial Santa Rita Jail in Dublin and to improve mental health programs for inmates.

The board's 3-2 vote on May 12 followed a lengthy meeting where dozens of callers – including psychologists, psychiatrists and members of community social-justice organizations – opposed the funding, saying the money would be better spent on mental health programs outside the jail.

It also was not clear how the county would fund the plan. Alameda County has a $74 billion budget deficit, and California and cities throughout the state are already instituting layoffs and cuts in service to deal with the effects COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders have had on the economy.

But Undersheriff Richard Lucia and a county attorney told the board expert studies resulting from litigation against the department showed the facility was woefully understaffed and would have to be dealt with at some point to meet legal and constitutional requirements.

Lucia said deputies are already working regular overtime shifts to staff the facility and are exhausted.

“We can’t expect them to do it forever,” Lucia said. “It’s just not sustainable.”

The additional funding of $106 million in each of the next three years will include $84 million for the Sheriff’s Office and $22 million for Alameda County behavioral health services.

The Sheriff’s Office will work to hire 349 positions – including 265 deputies and 84 non-sworn staff. The health agency will be allotted 107 positions to work to help inmates deal with life behind bars and provide crisis intervention services to prevent suicides, Ahern’s proposal said. Services will include inmate assessments, medication management and ongoing treatment.

Lee Davis, chair of the Alameda County Mental Health Advisory Board, called the expenditure an “enormous financial request especially in light of the current economic crisis.”

“There should also be an assessment of alternative mental health infrastructure investments in the community that could be both more effective and more cost-effective,” Davis said.

Sheriff Gregory Ahern’s request for the massive budget increase came at a time when the jail has reduced its population from 2,500 to about 1,700 inmates during the COVID-19 crisis, but a department official told supervisors the facility will return to capacity when the crisis is over. Ahern did not attend the meeting.

Lucia told supervisors the improved staffing and mental health programs were needed to settle the federal lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates. The lawsuit alleged mentally ill inmates were subjected to inadequate care behind bars.

The facility has had a high suicide rate in recent years. More staffing will allow for inmates to spend more time out of their cells and for increased observation of suicide prevention cells, the studies said.

Consultants suggested renovations to create private areas for mental health interviews and recreation space.

During the last 20 years, Lucia explained legislation to reduce the state’s prison population has changed the county jail population to include inmates who committed more serious crimes, like murder and rape. More than a third suffer from mental illness and other conditions, such as alcoholism or drug addiction.

Last week, two deputies saved two inmates from trying to strangle themselves to death, Lucia said.

Supervisor Richard Valle, the board's president, voted for the measure, saying it was necessary based on what the studies showed. Supervisor Nate Miley agreed.

“I think public safety and public health are extremely important, and I intend to stand on the side of public safety and public health,” Miley said.

Supervisors Wilma Chan and Keith Carson voted against it, citing the budget crisis.

Chan said she agreed mental health services needed to be improved but said “the $106 million doesn’t exist.”

“We don’t know where we are going to get it from,” Chan said. “It’s not sitting somewhere.”

She and Carson said the department already had 40 open positions and difficulty recruiting.

Supervisor Scott Haggerty voted in favor of the funding.