Activists outside of the Alameda County Administration Building in Oakland offer free alternative health care services and protest proposed mental health programs at the Santa Rita Jail.

Anti-jail demonstrators seek “Care not Cages”

on October 12, 2015

Shortly before dawn Thursday, activists congregated in the courtyard across the street from the Alameda County Courthouse, protesting Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern’s plans to remodel the Santa Rita Jail and calling for improved mental health services in the community. Along with conventional tools of protest like signs, banners and a megaphone, they brought instruments of alternative healing: acupuncture needles, meditation cushions and tarot cards.

The county sheriff’s office is seeking $54.3 million from the state to improve mental health care at Dublin’s Santa Rita Jail, but the proposal has faced pushback from local activists. Lieutenant Jason Arbuckle of the sheriff’s office presented the plan to the county Board of Supervisors’ Public Protection Committee at an afternoon meeting also attended by anti-jail activists.

According to Arbuckle’s presentation, roughly 1,000 Santa Rita Jail inmates—nearly half of the jail’s population—are being seen for mental health issues. Arbuckle’s slideshow noted that the jail was not designed for the mentally ill: At the time of its construction in the 1980s, one slide in the presentation stated, “the mentally ill were kept in institutions designed to treat them for their illness.” The sheriff’s proposal would remodel housing, administrative and treatment areas to better accommodate those needing mental health services while reducing the jail’s total inmate capacity by 18 beds.

The Sheriff’s Office press representative had not returned interview requests by press time.

The California Board of State and Community Corrections is slated to make a funding decision on the sheriff’s proposal on November 12, and this funding can then be accepted or declined by the Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Richard Valle, chair of the Public Protection Committee, told the Dublin Patch that it will be several months before the committee once more considers the proposal, and that he sympathizes with some of the anti-jail activists’ points. Valle had also not replied to a request for comment by press time.

The theme of Thursday morning’s protest was “Care not Cages,” and the activists sought to put their principles into action. They modeled many of the alternative health care practices they wish to see more of in their community, and that they hope can in many cases render incarceration unnecessary. Five demonstrators spent much of the two-hour protest sitting cross-legged, eyes-closed, palms-up on a ledge along the sidewalk, meditating. A cushioned table and two chairs were set up for acupuncture. One healer offered roadside tarot readings.

Sarwang Parkih sat next to a sign advertising mental health streetside counseling, energy work and art therapy. Streetside therapy “changes the tone” compared to private counseling, he said, adding that offering it free of charge makes it “more accessible.”

Expanding services related to “mental health in the prison complex sounds like a good theory on paper,” Parkih said. But, he argues, mental health issues are “exacerbated by being in prison in the first place,” and to devote tens of millions of dollars to a jail rather than to the broader community is a “misallocation of funds.”

“Prison is not a place of healing, it’s a place of harm,” said activist Maia Doan. While the protest was specifically aimed at Santa Rita Jail, many spoke in favor of abolishing the prison system altogether.

Instead, they said, the county should invest in mental health for the community as a preventative measure, and offer alternatives to conventional incarceration for the mentally ill. Some also cited jobs training and needle exchanges, which are meant to prevent the spread of disease among drug users, as important programs to reduce incarceration. The group also displayed information on how to use the drug naloxone in case of opiate overdose.

Several activists said they have family members incarcerated. Acupuncturist Eun Kim said she has two family members currently imprisoned. “I think if we had an alternate mental health system that really supported him, he wouldn’t be there today,” she said, thinking of a family member.

While Kim performed acupuncture, her young son, Khalil Kim Allen, played with superhero action figures, showing special fondness for the Penguin, a Batman villain.

The five meditators occasionally stood up to walk slowly across Oak and 12th Streets blocking traffic and bearing banners reading “Care Not Cages,” and “The Karma of Slavery is Heavy—I vow to work for racial justice.” At 7 am the cars seemed forgiving, but by 8 am some angry honks filled the intersection. Throughout, the activists maintained the stoicism and speed of a tortoise.

One meditator, Sierra Pickett, handed orange and yellow marigolds to pedestrians, saying she wanted passersby to “notice the beauty.” Some ignored her or refused, while others happily accepted the flowers. “Success is where they get out of the grind and stop and look, even if they don’t take a flower,” said Pickett.

One passerby, Mashael Majid, stopped to talk to demonstrators, saying she was drawn by the “smiles and flowers.” Sympathetic to the protest, she said she has been involved in prior jail-related advocacy and asked to have an “energy reading.”

Willie Patterson, another passerby, said he “has been to Santa Rita so many times it’s pathetic.” He spoke critically of his jail experience, and said he supports the activists’ cause. He added that he had been unaware of the sheriff’s proposed mental health program until that morning.

Despite a modest turnout, Rona Luo, an acupuncturist and a protest organizer, said she was satisfied. “I feel like we created a really sweet space, different from angry protests, while still getting our message across,” she said.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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