Four women who sued Alameda County over unhygienic and humiliating conditions at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin reached a $130,000 settlement with the county on August 1.
Plaintiffs Anne Weills, Tova Fry, Alyssa Eisenberg and Mollie Costello were arrested in February 2014 while protesting in Oakland. They and other protesters were drawing attention to the death of Alan Blueford, who was shot and killed by an Oakland police officer in 2012.
“We were demanding Kamala Harris investigate the deaths of young Black and Brown men by local police departments,” said Weills, who was acting as a legal observer when the California Highway Patrol arrested the women on suspicion of misdemeanor trespassing.
The four women were then taken to Santa Rita Jail, where they said they experienced conditions both humiliating and biohazardous.
“In the back of the cell was an overflowing toilet with feces and blood. To the left of the toilet was a pile of bloody clothes from women who were menstruating, and there was old food left out,” Weills said.
“[Deputies] also demanded that we take off our outer garments… and to the left and right of us were two holding cells where at least 10 to 20 male prisoners could see us,” she said.
Policies adopted from the settlement now require curtains for female inmates at Santa Rita Jail to use during screenings, basic amenities like trash bags and menstrual pads for female inmates, and will improve training for deputies.
According to Weills, the jail will also now clean up the cells every hour. “There is going to be a log, and every shift has to be signed off. ‘Yes the cell is clean’ or ‘yes they have access to menstrual pads.’ There will be a level of enforcement through the logging.”
Weills and the other plaintiffs quickly sought legal recourse after their arrest to bring attention to and change the degrading conditions that women inmates face at Santa Rita Jail.
“We were a privileged class of women and we thought, ‘what do we have available to fight this so it doesn’t happen again to a less privileged class that experiences this week in and week out?’” she said.
Prior to reaching the settlement, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors in June approved $116.9 million in upgrades to the Santa Rita Jail, including a new medical wing for improved healthcare and mental health services to inmates.
And just days after the lawsuit settled, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted on August 5 to end its contract with Corizon Health, which had provided medical care for Alameda County jails for nearly three decades.
According to the East Bay Times, Corizon laid off 63 nurses earlier this year after an $8.3 million settlement over the death of Martin Harrison, a 50-year-old Oakland resident who died in Santa Rita Jail.
The Times also reported a second lawsuit was filed in February by the family of 29-year-old Mario Martinez, who died at the jail of a severe asthma attack.
Shawn Wilson, Chief of Staff for Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, said he was unaware whether the decision to cut ties with Corizon had any direct relation to the case involving the four women at Santa Rita Jail, but that some supervisors had finally “had enough with Corizon and the number of complaints that had been cited.”
Weills sees things a bit differently.
“I think our case and these other cases are threatening (Sheriff-Coroner Gregory Ahern)’s control over the jail,” she said.
With the $130,000 settlement, the four women plan to distribute ‘know your rights’ pamphlets to inmates at the jail.
They also plan to set up a hotline run through The Alan Blueford Center for Justice in Oakland for women at Santa Rita Jail “who have stories to tell and questions to ask,” Weills said.