'Deliberate indifference' to inmate safety at Calif. jail, lawsuit alleges

The lawsuit claims the staff at the jail lack adequate training and policies in medical and mental health screening

By Maggie Angst
Bay Area News Group

ALAMEDA COUNTY, Calif. — When Jonas Park was booked into Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail while actively experiencing opiate withdrawal, he was never given the recommended treatment nor seen by a mental health professional. Instead, he was placed in a single, isolated cell and only given the chance to leave it once during the time he spent in custody, according to a new lawsuit filed in federal court.

Just five days after arriving at the Dublin jail, the 33-year-old inmate, who had a history of anxiety and bipolar disorder, allegedly hung himself in his cell.

It is the second lawsuit filed against Alameda County in the past month regarding concerns about the health and safety of detainees at Santa Rita Jail.
It is the second lawsuit filed against Alameda County in the past month regarding concerns about the health and safety of detainees at Santa Rita Jail. (Photo/Doug Duran of Bay Area News Group via MCT)

In a lawsuit filed on March 22 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Park’s family alleges that his death was a result of Alameda County, Sheriff Gregory Ahern and correctional healthcare provider Wellpath’s “deliberate indifference” to Park’s “serious, emergency medical and mental health needs.” In particular, the lawsuit claims that staff at the jail lack adequate training and policies in medical and mental health screening and therefore fail to identify, treat and supervise incarcerated people who are at risk for suicide.

Sanjay Schmidt, a San Francisco-based attorney representing Park’s family, said he hopes the lawsuit will “deliver justice” to the family and help prevent “a needless death like this from occurring again by promoting robust policy changes that will keep all inmates safe and address all of their mental and medical health needs.”

It is the second lawsuit filed against Alameda County and Ahern in the past month regarding concerns about the health and safety of detainees at Santa Rita Jail. Earlier this month, the family of a woman who allegedly overdosed on fentanyl last year at Santa Rita sued the county, arguing that “inadequate mental health care, inhumane living conditions, and an inadequate drug search policy” all led to her death.

The jail, which is run by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, is one of the largest in the state, holding about 2,000 detainees on any given day. In recent years, treatment of people with mental disabilities and substance abuse incarcerated there — including a practice of locking inmates in isolation for extended periods of time — has drawn public outrage, as well as several lawsuits and federal investigations.

From 2015 through 2019, at least 14 inmates at Santa Rita Jail died of suicide — a rate more than twice the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. While no detainees took their own lives in 2020, Park was one of two Santa Rita inmates to kill themselves in the first four months of 2021.

Ray Kelly, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, declined to comment on Park’s case or the latest lawsuit, citing the pending litigation.

Park, who was arrested on charges in connection with a burglary, was booked into Santa Rita in the early morning on Feb. 4, 2021. A health screening conducted at that time indicated that he had fentanyl, ecstasy and methamphetamine in his system, among other drugs. The staffer who conducted the screening allegedly noted “alerts” in his paperwork for “chronic care,” “suicide watch” and “active withdrawal.”

According to the lawsuit, those alerts should have warranted referral to an opiate-withdrawal treatment program and mental health evaluation. But, the suit claims, Park was not provided with either of those services.

Instead, though Park was dealing with withdrawal from opiates, jail staff issued treatment for alcohol withdrawal — and still failed to follow those directions, according to the suit.

All the while, Park was assigned to a single cell in isolation or “restrictive” housing — meaning that he would rarely be allowed to leave his cell and when he was, would be given no opportunity to interact with others nor go outdoors. The county has historically used this type of isolation to manage inmates with mental health needs, according to the lawsuit.

On Feb. 7, 2021, three days after getting booked into Santa Rita, Park requested medical attention because he was “feeling shaky” from withdrawal. A staffer “provided Gatorade” but failed to refer Park for any additional medical care or treatment. Two days later, he was found dead in his cell. The Alameda County Coroner’s Office determined his cause of death was hanging, the lawsuit states.

In April 2021, about two months after Park’s death, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice released the results of a four-year-long investigation into the conditions inside Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail and John George Psychiatric Hospital. In its report, federal investigators found that Santa Rita Jail “fails to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care to prisoners with serious mental health needs, including those at risk of suicide.” They also determined that the jail’s use of prolonged restrictive housing violates the constitutional rights of incarcerated people with mental illness.

Notably, the report found that several of the incarcerated people were known to be under distress from opioid withdrawal at the time of their mental health assessments but very few of their charts contained any mention of treatment plans, interventions or referrals related to their conditions.

But that was not the first indication that there were issues with the jail’s handling of mental health care for detainees. In 2018, a federal class-action lawsuit was filed against the county alleging cruel and unusual punishment of detainees with mental illness.

Just last month, a federal judge approved a settlement stemming from that lawsuit. Under the agreement, the jail will be placed under court supervision for at least six years, with a team of experts tasked with overseeing a significant reform of the jail’s mental health care policies and practices. The agreement requires Alameda County to increase the number of mental health staff at the jail, provide inmates with more time out of their cells and take additional measures to prevent suicide and self-harm in its jails.

Kelly said the county strives for zero deaths within its jails, but called stopping suicides an “ongoing challenge.”

“We’ve been able to stop and mitigate a lot of suicides before they happen,” he said, “but it doesn’t take very much for us to miss someone that’s able to complete the act in a very short amount of time.”

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