Magistrate Nathaniel Cousins has ruled in favor of costly Santa Rita Jail consent decree despite class member opposition
OAKLAND, CA – Community organizations and civil rights attorneys who objected to the settlement in Babu v. County of Alameda say that they are consulting with incarcerated people about whether to appeal Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins’ Feb. 7 order to approve the settlement and consent decree.
Objecting prisoners and their counsel have 30 days to appeal the decision, which would be heard in the Ninth Circuit. Thirty-nine incarcerated people testified with their objections in a hearing on Thursday, January 27, none in favor of the consent decree. While the Judge says that testimony about poor jail conditions “further emphasized the need for the Consent Decree,” speakers highlighted a range of issues not limited to jail conditions, including the fact that the settlement does not substantively address the treatment of incarcerated women.
“The Babu settlement makes winners out of the Sheriff at the expense of those of us in the facility,” said Tiara Arnold, who says that she has experienced retaliation from the Jail for helping fellow incarcerated women prepare for the hearing. [See Ms. Arnold’s objection here].
“It is disappointing that Judge Cousins heard 5.5 hours of testimony from inmates, and yet hardly responded in his Order to their comments,” says Yolanda Huang, attorney for objecting class members. “Inmates objected because the decree, while taking away their rights to petition the courts about conditions at the jail, does not improve the conditions for the majority of the prisoners. Inmates call the jail culture at Santa Rita a ‘culture of cruelty’ and cite this as a primary reason that the settlement is ineffective: it does not recognize nor address the basic cultural framework of the jail.”
Ms. Huang says that numerous class members have contacted her office about an appeal.
Objector Alfonso Arroyo echoed Ms. Huang’s disappointment. Mr. Arroyo was disappointed to learn that the order did not respond directly to class member concerns, and says he feels dismissed by the Court despite his assertion that the settlement doesn’t adequately address conditions in non-“safety” cells. [See Mr. Arroyo’s objection here].
“Legally,” Ms. Huang says, “the approval process violated due process because it will prevent people who are incarcerated in the future from challenging the settlement, but failed to provide them with adequate notice. Judge Cousins rationalized this failure by saying that future inmates will be given notice when they enter the jail. But Judge Cousins, with his order, has already ordered the forfeiture, in absentia, of the rights of future inmates: a serious constitutional violation.”
Judge Cousins rejected objectors’ allegations that the notice provided was not sufficient or compliant with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, stating that a strong community response was evidence that the notice was adequate. Kellie Walters, attorney for objecting organizations, notes that community response in the courtroom was entirely composed of people speaking in opposition to the Consent Decree.
One objecting class member, Tommy Navarrette, was recently released from Santa Rita Jail. “I am extremely disappointed and disheartened with this decision,” he says. Mr. Navarrette believes that the settlement represents collusion with the County, which has approved an $84 million annual budget increase as a result of the settlement but no audit of how the Sheriff uses those funds. [See Mr. Navarrette’s objection here].
According to the Judge, “the Court wholeheartedly agrees” that the jail should not be the County’s primary provider of mental health care. Yet Alameda County is now legally committed to dedicating more than $100 million a year to hire over 400 new jail staff. According to John Lindsay-Poland, who objected to the settlement on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee, the staffing data show that the County will fail to meet these benchmarks.
One of the written objections requested that Judge Cousins at least order further discovery before making his decision. He denied that request, stating that the discovery was adequate. Incarcerated people say that counsel didn’t ask the right questions or in-depth enough questions. They say that counsel didn’t conduct tours of the most problematic locations, and that many incarcerated people didn’t feel safe sharing their experiences during tours when jail commanders were present.
The Judge concluded by stating, “the Court is convinced that a reform is necessary and the increase provided by the Consent Decree, while perhaps not…ideal, is markedly better than the current situation.” One of the attorneys for objectors commented that “it is unfortunate that we will settle for ‘good enough’ when considering peoples’ lives.”