Prisoners at the overcrowded and understaffed Yuba County Jail have found formidable allies in law students studying civil rights at UC Davis.
Last fall, three students from the UC Davis School of Law’s renowned Civil Rights Clinic went before the county grand jury with detailed findings on how the Marysville jail is run. Among other criticisms, they said the jail has failed to provide treatment or medication for mentally ill inmates and to protect prisoners from assault by other inmates. The students’ role was made public in late May with the release of the previously confidential grand jury report for 2014-15.
The prisoners didn’t set out to get student help, but they needed representation when the Yuba County Counsel’s Office moved in Sacramento federal court to dismiss a long-ignored consent decree put in place in 1979 to govern the jail’s operation.
The California Rural Legal Assistance lawyers who filed the 1976 lawsuit that led to the consent decree, and who monitored how the Sheriff’s Department obeyed the document’s mandates, had to abandon their roles as watchdogs in 1996 because of legal and economic restrictions. So there was no enforcement of the decree’s terms for 18 years, until the County Counsel’s Office filed its motion in 2013.
Consequently, the federal court in Sacramento looked for a lawyer to represent the prisoners and reached out last year to Carter “Cappy” White, the Civil Rights Clinic’s director and supervising attorney, who agreed to take on the task. When you get White, you get his students.
Over the next year and a half, the students delved into the operations of the jail, interviewing scores of prisoners.
Amanda Whitney – a 26-year-old third-year law student from Bakersfield and one of nine students who have worked on the case – conducted interviews with inmates, met with jail staff, and pored over documents such as grievances and incident reports.
The experience was “incredibly valuable,” she said, “in terms of learning practical skills and finding out what the real world is like.”
The grand jury report says the large number of inmates and their “complicated needs,” plus “the inadequacy of the facility itself,” are a challenge to the staff of the jail.
That jury report, White said, “confirms much of what we have learned about the need to improve access to medical and mental health care at the jail.” He said attorneys and students have found jail officials receptive to some suggestions about improvements but resistant to others, citing budget limitations.
In response to the evidence presented by the student lawyers, the grand jury recommended that the Yuba County jail beef up medical and mental health care for prisons, in part by having a full-time credentialed mental health counselor and a full-time registered nurse available to handle their needs. It said the county should reduce the use of a “rubber room” to contain mentally ill prisoners and avoid delays in transferring prisoners to outside hospitals.
There’s no way you can understand the seriousness of the problem unless you see it up close.
Law student Amanda Whitney about the Yuba County jail
Shortcomings at the jail have been noted for decades.
The underlying lawsuit challenging conditions was eventually certified as a class action, and the consent decree resolved most of the suit’s claims. While the decree remains in place to this day, its mandate that each county grand jury be made aware of the document and its terms has been ignored since the CRLA lawyers bowed out.
The 2014-15 grand jury reported that it discovered the decree’s existence “through media reports regarding another agency.” It then examined federal court records, learning that the Yuba County counsel’s office knew of its legal obligation to supply a copy of the decree to the jury but failed to do so, according to the report.
In the 2013 motion to terminate the decree, John Vacek, Yuba County’s chief deputy counsel, wrote that while the court-approved pact “may have made some sense in the 1970s, much of it is as relevant today as bell bottom pants and disco music.”
Since the decree was adopted, circumstances at the jail have changed. For example, when the suit was filed, the design capacity for the jail was 150 and the staff numbered 19. There are now 60 staff members and the building, renovated in 1995, is designed for 428 inmates.
White and his students stepped in last year and vigorously opposed termination of the consent degree, noting that past grand jury reports had described conditions and practices still not in compliance with the decree, including how often inmates get clean underwear and towels and have access to the exercise yard, how often unusable recreation equipment is replaced, how often detoxification holding cells are cleaned, and the frequency and response time of medical and dental care.
18 The number of years a consent decree was ignored by Yuba County officials
The Civil Rights Clinic’s team also pointed out that the jail operates, in part, as a facility for federal immigration detainees, and they are protected by the consent decree just like all other prisoners. The county argued the opposite, saying that the Prison Litigation Reform Act does not provide a basis for such protection.
U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. granted time for White and his students to do some fact-finding. At a second round of briefing, the clinic urged the judge to maintain the majority of the decree, “at least in the areas of outdoor exercise, medical care, grievance procedures, hygiene, and housing and safety.”
Burrell denied the dismissal motion in April 2014, ruling that the county had failed “to demonstrate that there are no ongoing constitutional violations” of the inmates’ rights. For defending the motion, Burrell awarded attorneys’ fees and costs totaling $7,827 to White and his students, $6,192 of which were fees for the students’ labors.
The county appealed Burrell’s rejection of its motion and his award of fees and costs. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed the awards appeal pending its decision on the denial of the motion. The appeal will probably be decided next year.
After winning the first critical round in district court, the students investigated further under White’s guidance, monitored the jail’s operation and presented their findings to the grand jury in November. It’s that jury’s report that was released in May.
Whitney, the student who worked on the case this past academic year, said she took away a realization of how critical the need is for quality treatment of mentally ill inmates. “You read about it a lot, but there’s no way you can understand the seriousness of the problem unless you see it up close. People are getting hurt,” she said.
The civil rights clinic is one of the reasons Whitney chose UC Davis to study law, she said. Without it, she said, she “would never have known what jail is really like. It is something that will stick with me the rest of my life.”
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189
Carter “Cappy” White, director of the UC Davis School of Law Civil Rights Clinic and its supervising attorney, and two of his students submitted a 43-page brief in October to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case involving conditions at the Yuba County jail. Among their findings:
▪ Inmates are consistently denied access to adequate medical care and inmates with serious mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, have been deprived of access to mental health services and medication.
▪ The jail has failed to protect prisoners from assault by other inmates in entirely preventable situations.
▪ Inmates are subjected to an unreasonable risk of harm due to the fact that jail employees fail to properly (check) and supervise cell blocks and housing units, and many jail housing units lack a means for inmates to contact jail staff in case of medical crisis or other emergency.
▪ Evidence exists of unsanitary conditions, lack of access to outdoor exercise and reprisals or retaliation against inmates who file grievances.