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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on March 1st, 2016, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 16, Issue 52 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 16, Issue 52

Report claims Santa Barbara County Jail 'actively neglects' disabled prisoners

By BRENNA SWANSTON

Disability Rights California (DRC) found evidence that Santa Barbara County Jail practices violate the rights of prisoners with disabilities, according to the agency’s report on the April 2015 inspection of the jail.

The report listed the jail’s main violations as: undue and excessive isolation and solitary confinement, inadequate mental health care, and denial of rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). DRC identified these issues through a monitoring visit and interviews with prisoners and their families and attorneys.

DRC managing attorney Melinda Bird said the most urgent concern—and the most easily fixed—is the jail’s use of safety cells.


DISABILITY RIGHTS
Santa Barbara County Jail inmates revealed in interviews that they didn’t receive any group or individual therapy, and the jail’s mental health care practices were confined to medication and brief check-ups.
FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

Safety cells are intended to house violent prisoners in isolation until they cool down, usually for a few hours. However, DRC reported that the Santa Barbara County Jail overuses safety cell isolation, often placing prisoners in the cells for days on end.

“I have never seen another jail facility that uses safety cells in the way that Santa Barbara does,” Bird said. “To hold people in a tiny cell with no bed, no toilet, no water, a light on all the time, for days at a time—it’s really an outlier practice.”

DRC interviews yielded evidence that prisoners released from safety cell placements didn’t receive any mental health treatment for suicidal feelings when they requested it. Medical records showed that the jail failed to provide treatment for prisoners placed on psychiatric hold and instead placed them for 72 hours in a safety cell, which the report called “one of the worst practices we observed.”

“Medical records and prisoner interviews confirmed that prisoners with mental illness and behavioral problems are housed in safety cells for three days at a time on a repeated basis,” the report stated. “Placing prisoners with mental illness in safety cells for days at a time without mental health treatment constitutes abuse and/or neglect, is inconsistent with minimum standards of care, and violates constitutional guarantees.”

Regarding mental health care, DRC found that outpatient mental health care at the jail seemed to consist “solely of sporadic medication management and brief, cell-front interviews.” The health care staff didn’t offer group or individual therapy or out-of-cell therapeutic activities, which the report said violated “minimum standards of care for prisoners with serious mental illness.”

Additionally, the report said the jail lacked a formal policy to monitor and enforce reservations of lower bunks in the dorms for prisoners who have mobility impairments. Though the jail assigned disabled prisoners to lower bunks, inmate interviews indicated that other prisoners would sometimes use those bunks anyway, leaving the ones with mobile impairments to sleep on the floor. 

Bird said the sheriff could rectify the safety cell problems instantly, but so far, “We’ve seen no concrete action.” On the other hand, fixing the jail’s inadequate mental health care and non-compliance with the ADA would take more time, energy, and intensive work with the deputies and staff.

The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office wrote a response to the DRC’s report that disagreed with the agency’s conclusion.

“The sheriff disagrees with the report’s conclusion that inmates with disabilities are subject to ‘abuse and/or neglect’ in the jail,” the response stated. “While the report’s recommendations and perceived shortcomings may show areas where some improvements could be made, it is inaccurate to deduce that if improvements could be made, then the existing situation is ‘abuse and/or neglect.’”

The response addressed many of DRC’s concerns by referencing the Northern Branch Jail construction project and how the new jail would improve conditions and benefit the inmates. However, Bird said a new jail isn’t enough.

“The county will continue to use the main jail even after the new jail is constructed,” she said. “So those conditions have to be addressed: the isolation, the lack of ADA compliance, and accessibility.”

DRC’s Santa Barbara County Jail inspection was one of six inspections of county correctional facilities in 2015. DRC has so far released reports on four of these inspections, and found probable cause for abuse and neglect in three of them.

“There are problems in every jail that we’ve inspected,” Bird said. “In three-quarters of them, they rose to the level of active neglect. Santa Barbara is one of those.”