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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on December 20th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 42 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 42

Lawsuit seeks court-ordered reforms for treatment of inmates in Santa Barbara County Jail

By KASEY BUBNASH

From September 2016 to January 2017, at least 12 prisoners in the Santa Barbara County Jail attempted to kill themselves while inside isolation cells, according to court documents. That’s more than one suicide attempt every two weeks.

One inmate, Hector Higareda, died on Oct. 16, 2016, after hanging himself in one of the jail’s isolation cells, which are described in court documents as windowless, poorly ventilated, and “filthy” spaces no more than 60 square feet in size. In 2011, another inmate, Juan Rodriguez-Zepeda died in an isolation cell after being housed in solitary confinement for more than a month. His death came after several requests for medical attention, according to court documents, and he had been dead for several hours before his body was found.

There have been 10 deaths at the Santa Barbara County Jail since 2011, including two suicides and eight deaths stemming from serious medical conditions that were inadequately treated in the jail, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed on Dec. 6 against Santa Barbara County and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail. The complaint, which includes detailed accounts of poor treatment of inmates with disabilities and mental health issues, claims that conditions in the Santa Barbara County Jail are discriminatory, unlawful, and dangerous.

“Defendants County of Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office systematically and knowingly (1) fail to provide adequate medical and mental health care to the people housed in the jail,” the complaint reads, “(2) overuse isolation and solitary confinement; (3) discriminate against and fail to accommodate people with disabilities; and (4) provide inhumane, unsanitary, and unsafe living conditions.”

These conditions, the complaint argues, have not only led to widespread and unnecessary harm, but violate prisoners’ rights outlined in the Eighth and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, and California state law.

Current inmates Clay Murray, David Franco, Shareen Winkle, Maria Tracy, and Eric Brown are listed as the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, and are seeking court-ordered systematic reforms within the jail and its policies to improve quality of life for inmates with mental illnesses and disabilities.

The plaintiffs are not requesting damages, according to Aaron Fischer, an attorney representing the plaintiffs through Disability Rights California, which conducted an extensive investigation into the Santa Barbara County Jail’s treatment of its inmates in 2015. During the investigation, Fischer said Disability Rights and the Prison Law Office found several major violations of prisoners’ rights, including excessive isolation and use of solitary confinement, inadequate mental health care, and discrimination against inmates with disabilities. 

Cooperative correspondence 

Since its investigation, Fischer said the Sheriff’s Office and county have been working in constant, cooperative correspondence with Disability Rights. Sheriff Bill Brown said in a press release that efforts to improve the jail have been ongoing for many years.

“The Sheriff’s Office takes seriously the treatment of all inmates in our custody, especially the most vulnerable,” Brown said in the release. “We take these allegations seriously and remain committed to the proper care and treatment of those under our watch.”

But the county has faced a variety of challenges over the years, including financial difficulties, AB 109 realignment, and the general architectural design of the jail, which was built 50 years ago, before today’s jail construction standards were developed.

Some positive changes have already been made.

The county recently began construction on a new jail in Santa Maria that will serve North County residents, according to Brown. That jail is scheduled to open in 2019 and is expected to relieve some of the overcrowding issues prevalent in the Santa Barbara County Jail, which has left many inmates without beds and is believed to have led to an outbreak of a drug-resistant skin infection that causes painful wounds.

In April 2017, the Sheriff’s Office hired the California Forensic Medical Group to provide mental health services to inmates. The former provider, Corizon Health, was named in the 2015 Disability Rights report and in a recent Santa Barbara County grand jury investigation as the source of many of the jail’s problems in providing mental health services.  

Corizon, according to the Disability Rights report, did not conduct out-of-cell group or individual therapy or activities and failed to properly screen many inmates for medical issues on arrival. It also frequently failed to respond to requests for treatment in a timely matter, which led to untreated mental illnesses within the jail.

Although the jail’s new provider, California Forensic Medical Group was said to have “high ratings” in the grand jury report, Disability Rights attorney Fischer said the company has its own history of issues, and many of the jail’s poor practices in treating mental health persist today.

Kelly Hoover, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office, declined to comment further on the allegations due to pending litigation. 

Overuse of isolation

While even short stays in solitary confinement have been proven to worsen mental health, especially in inmates with pre-existing mental health issues, Disability Rights wrote in its 2015 report that mentally ill inmates in the Santa Barbara County Jail are often held for days in solitary confinement, isolation cells, or safety cells, which are small, windowless rooms with rubberized walls, no furniture, bedding, or source of water, and a pit toilet in the floor.

Details in the complaint show that little has changed since then, and the lawsuit states that the jail’s policy for response to suicidal prisoners is “extremely harsh.” Inmates identified as suicidal are stripped naked, put in safety smocks, and locked in safety cells, where they eat and sleep on the floor, where the pit toilets are located, without bedding or mattresses. Inmates, according to court documents, have been left in safety cells for days with no access to showers, visitation, or out-of-cell time, and contact with the mental health staff occurs through the food slots in the cells’ metal doors.

One of the plaintiffs, Winkle, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was allegedly held in a safety cell for four consecutive days. Before that, according to the complaint, she was held in solitary confinement for various minor infractions, where she suffered multiple panic attacks.

On any given day, according to the complaint, roughly 75 inmates are locked in solitary confinement cells for sometimes 24 hours a day as punishment for infractions. By policy, the complaint states that prisoners in isolation units are allowed out of their cells for only three hours a week. 

Disability discrimination

While Disability Rights attorney Fischer said the jail does provide some positive educational and treatment programs, inmates with disabilities and mental health issues aren’t offered those services because they’re conducted in another facility.

“That is disability discrimination,” Fischer said, adding that many of the cells and dorms are outfitted with bunk beds, which pose a major issue for inmates with mobility disabilities. “Little to no part of the jail is ADA compliant.”

Various shower and toilet areas lack grab bars, according to the complaint, and several prisoners with mobility disabilities have fallen trying to use them. Jail staff members sometimes confiscate mobility assistive devices, including wheelchairs and crutches, from inmates with disabilities while transporting them to court or other outside facilities.

Staffers allegedly left plaintiff Murray—a U.S. Army veteran who suffers from degenerative joint disease, spinal arthritis, and peripheral neuropathy—without a wheelchair for days while he was locked in an isolation cell. 

A dilapidated facility

All inmates at Santa Barbara County Jail are subjected to unsanitary living conditions, the complaint alleges. The jail is described as completely rundown, with toilets that often overflow and air vents caked with dirt. Visible mold is present in much of the jail, including in the “medical unit.”

“There is nothing medical about it,” Fischer said. “It’s just where they cluster the people with serious medical conditions.”

Prisoners, according to the complaint, often use their own bars of soap to clean their cells and dorms. The architectural structure of the cells is small and does not meet the minimum building requirements of today, the complaint states.

Big changes need to be made within the Santa Barbara County Jail, Fischer said, adding that the Sheriff’s Office and county are expected to officially respond to the lawsuit sometime around March of 2018. Fischer said the plaintiffs’ next step will be class certification, which would allow the lawsuit to represent all inmates in the Santa Barbara County Jail.

Fischer said the county and the Sheriff’s Office have both agreed to hire Disability Rights experts who, over the past eight months, have done several tours of the jail and are compiling a report of findings and recommended ways to improve the facility.

Fischer said both involved parties hope to negotiate and reach a settlement.

“So far, the county has been acting in good faith,” Fischer said. “And they recognize the problems and there is a lot of work to be done.” 

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com.




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