All Jails Are Toxic

Tiny - Posted on 13 September 2016

Tash Nguyen

For too long, harmful law enforcement and detention policies have worsened mental health and public safety outcomes. The Alameda Jail Fight Coalition has been working hard  to divert millions of dollars away from Santa Rita Jail for the purposes of investing in appropriate, community-based responses to incidents involving individuals with mental health issues.  We challenge Alameda County to break away from the harmful cycles of criminalizing mental health conditions and invest in humane solutions that make us all safer.


We’re fighting against a $61.6 million construction project at Santa Rita Jail and demanding the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to reject Alameda County’s SB 863 $54 million grant from the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) and invest $7.3 million, Alameda County’s 10% county match, in alternatives to incarceration that keep our families together and our communities safe.


Historically, law enforcement involvement in mental health issues began in the late 1700s, when people with mental illness were routinely confined in prisons and jails.  Later replaced with large psychiatric institutions because incarceration was deemed barbaric and ineffective, these institutions did little to improve the conditions or outcomes for mentally ill individuals.  In the 1960s, as part of his proposal to shut down these institutions, President John F. Kennedy promised that “the cold mercy of custodial isolation will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability.”[i]


It is clear that both the country and Alameda County has failed to live up to this promise. Massive cuts to mental health services have turned jails and prisons into de facto “treatment” options.  Between 2009 and 2011, states cut over $1.8 billion in Medicaid funding, including money dedicated to mental health services in the form of supportive housing, access to psychiatric medications, emergency and long-term hospital treatment, and targeted case management and clinic services.[ii]  While the goal of these cuts was to reduce spending, the costs have been simply passed to other entities, including law enforcement agencies and correctional facilities.[iii]  The largest providers of public mental health services are jails and prisons with 10 times the number of mentally ill people incarcerated than there are in state run psychiatric hospitals.[iv]


In Alameda County, it is estimated that there are more than 65,000 individuals that are in need of mental health services and over 70% of them are living at below the poverty level.[v] While the vast majority of people living with mental health issues are no more violent than the general population and are actually more likely to be victims of violence, a small subsection of people have a much higher risk of violence when their mental health problems go untreated.  In addition, many people self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, which significantly increases the chances that they will become entangled with the criminal justice system.


Criminalization of Mental Illness

When police officers respond to a mental health call, they typically have three options: refer the person to outpatient treatment, hospitalization, or arrest.  Except in the most extreme cases, outpatient treatment is almost always the most desirable and appropriate option.  Access to services is challenging because of insufficient communication among agencies.  Hospitalization is also difficult due to the low number of beds in state-facilities.  Experts agree that the minimum number of available beds should be 50 per 100,000 people, but the actual ratio is less than half that and more cuts across the country are imminent.[vi]  In Alameda County, John George Psychiatric Hospital is designed to hold 23 patients but overcrowding has exceeding capacity by more than 300%.[vii]  The mental health staffing ratios in Santa Rita are even more stark at 1:263.  In the rest of the state, 25 counties do not have any adult mental health beds and 45 of them do not have beds for children.


The only option left for law enforcement officers who are not equipped to address mental health crises, is to incarcerate the person.  Overall, about 10% of people are suffering from an acute psychiatric episode when they are first incarcerated and rather than receiving treatment, they simply become part of the criminal justice system.  Jails are increasingly seeing “frequent flyers:” people with mental health issues who are incarcerated for short periods of time and then re-offend soon after their release due a lack of access to appropriate treatment.  The resulting criminal record can limit access to services that could greatly reduce mental health problems and makes it harder to access housing, employment, and education.


Call To Action!


Stand with us in our demands to:

1. Stop all construction plans for the new jail

2. Invest in alternatives to incarceration and community health

3. Divest from incarceration and policing


Sign here to add your name to the growing list of healthcare providers who oppose this project:


Sign here if you are a California resident opposed to this project:




[i] Torrey, E. F., Zdanowicz, M. T., Kennard, A. D., Lamb, H. R., Eslinger, D. F., Biasotti, M. C., et al. (2014, April 8). The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey (Abridged). Treatment Advocacy Center. Retrieved April 17, 2014, from Page 4.

[ii] Honberg, R., Diehl, S., Kimball, A., Gruttadaro, D., & Fitzpatrick, M. (n.d.). State Mental Health Cuts: A National Crisis. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved April 17, 2014, from

[iii] Hornberg et al, page 1.

[iv] Torrey, E. F., Zdanowicz, M. T., Kennard, A. D., Lamb, H. R., Eslinger, D. F., Biasotti, M. C., et al. (2014, April 8). The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey (Abridged). Treatment Advocacy Center. Retrieved April 17, 2014, from Page 4.

[v] California Mental Health Prevalence Estimates. Found at:

[vi] Israel, J. (2014, February 24). State Of Emergency: 24 States Lack Basic Tools To Identify Open Beds For Psychiatric Patients. ThinkProgress. Retrieved April 17, 2014, from



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