Zoom meetings and hearings convened by government bodies are highly impersonal. In the case of federal court hearings, no one is even visible to participants – we are disembodied voices.
So when federal magistrate Nathanael Cousins responded to extensive formal objections to a settlement decree that would dramatically expand Santa Rita Jail staff by agreeing to two extended sessions of testimony by both community advocates and by prisoners themselves, it was an unusual opportunity for organizing and for hearing directly those who impacted every day by incarceration and state violence.
“Hiring more sheriffs is not addressing the mental health issues going on in this jail, it’s hiring more hands to enforce instead of helping.”
- Jason Brown, second hearing on January 27.
The first hearing on January 19 was very well attended, with 180 people on zoom. AFSC participated in a press conference in front of the County building that morning, and press covered both that and the hearing. There was press coverage in the morning and throughout, with powerful speakers giving public comments over a two-hour period. The magistrate appeared extremely receptive to hearing public comment and ordered a second hearing to hear directly from people in the jail, on January 27.
“The jail doesn’t need to hire more sheriffs, they need to hire more mental health professionals,” said Jason Brown from inside Santa Rita during the second hearing on January 27. “Hiring more sheriffs is not addressing the mental health issues going on in this jail, it’s hiring more hands to enforce instead of helping.”
“Mental health workers have begged officers to take an inmate out and clean the cell (trash etc), but deputies refuse,” prisoner David Misch told the court.
Other prisoners directly addressed the consent decree’s requirement that the jail hire more than 350 new custodial (sheriff) staff and barely 100 clinicians to work in the jail. “Deputies provide security escort, but mental health must have power to do jobs without fear of losing their jobs – they need power to make final decisions about mental health care,” said William Epting. “The way the consent decree is structured does not adequately address mental health needs and gives deputies more power – it creates a bigger department than currently exists.”
Prisoner after prisoner after prisoner testified, often with cacophonous noise from the jail behind them, to the reality of pervasive cruelty and poor mental health services in the jail, and how the consent decree would reward the sheriff, not addressing prisoners’ mental health needs.
"They may not beat me today or put me in an isolation cell [for helping others inside write their thoughts], I have to live with that fear."
- Tiara Arnold
Some of the prisoners expressed their fear of retaliation for speaking in the hearing. “A lot of the ladies come to me to ask me for help to put together something simple enough to share with you, and they locked me in my cell before they started passing out letters figuring out who wants to speak,” another prisoner, Tiara Arnold, testified after thanking the judge for the opportunity to speak.
“I asked the captain why, and he said, ‘I don’t know why, ask the deputy.’ I asked the deputy and she said ‘the captain told me to lock you down when we first came in.’ In this sense, it makes me so uncomfortable, because whereas they may not beat me today or put me in an isolation cell, just that interaction with my superiors – I have to live with that fear, even if I’m not a problematic inmate.”
Magistrate Cousins ruled to approve the consent decree on February 7, which was a blow to advocates and prisoners who believe it undermines the Care First Jails Last policy and preempts resources for community-based - not jail-based - mental health services. But the hearing advanced and demonstrated the power of organizing by those both inside and outside the jail. We’ll be back.