Alameda County Settles Suit Over 'Humiliating' Conditions for Women at Santa Rita Jail

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Santa Rita Jail in Dublin will provide female inmates with basic amenities such as trash bags and menstrual pads and improve training for deputies after four women plaintiffs reached a $130,000 settlement Monday with Alameda County.

The plaintiffs -- Anne Weills, Tova Fry, Alyssa Eisenberg and Mollie Costello -- sued the county, claiming that sheriff's deputies violated their civil rights. The women were arrested and taken to Santa Rita Jail after participating in a protest in February 2014 against police shootings.

They say they planned for their arrest when they took part in a sit-in at a state office building in Oakland to demand state Attorney General Kamala Harris prosecute California police officers who had shot and killed citizens.

After they were arrested, the women were taken to Santa Rita. Weills, a civil rights attorney, said conditions there amounted to a biohazard.

“The toilet was overflowing with blood and feces. There were menstrual pads all piled up in the corner already used," Weills said.

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She said deputies searched them roughly and ordered them to strip down to their bras and parade in front of male guards after threatening them with violence if they didn't do so.

“It was extremely humiliating,” Eisenberg said. “Everywhere I looked there were male faces just staring. The deputies stood right behind me, and I could actually feel them breathing on me.”

In addition to their own mistreatment, the plaintiffs said they observed guards taunting other female inmates and refusing to give menstrual pads to women who needed them.

Weills said the group was aware of its privilege relative to other inmates. They are middle-age professionals, and three out of four are white.

“This treatment shows the contempt for young women of color, because it’s rare that an older professional woman, with obvious white privilege like me, ends up there,” Weills said.

In settling the lawsuit, the plaintiffs said the county has agreed to several changes in its practices. In addition to mandating that female inmates are given menstrual pads and trash bags, policies now require privacy curtains while female inmates are screened and clarify that “deputies conducting a search cannot grasp or knead the arrestee’s body.”

On Tuesday, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors approved the settlement.

Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff's Department said the plaintiffs experienced an aberration that does not reflect the normal state of the jail. He said the deputies are well trained and called Santa Rita "one of the cleanest jails in the country."

"Sometimes, during events like a mass protest when we have a lot of people coming in, things get backed up and cells get dirty," Kelly said.

He added that the policy updates are already in practice and the settlement has just "brought them to the forefront."

Yolanda Huang, the group’s attorney, said another policy update will require a 16-hour training program for deputies assigned to admitting new arrestees. Until now, Huang said, deputies received standard training covering only issues such as firearm safety, but no specific instruction on how to take in and release prisoners.

“As a result of this settlement, they’re going to know what the right thing to do is, what their job duties are and how to execute them so there are no more excuses,” Huang said.

After lawyers' fees, Weills said, the money from the settlement will go toward creating pamphlets to distribute inside Santa Rita Jail informing inmates of their rights. The money will also be used to set up a hotline so inmates can report on conditions from inside the jail.

“It’s mainly for the class of women who come into that jail and get treated like that," Weills said. "That's why we filed suit."