Inmate advocates, Sacramento County settle lawsuit over ‘inhumane’ jail conditions

Sacramento County has settled a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by inmates who alleged “inhumane” conditions at county jails, agreeing to make millions of dollars’ worth of changes to jail staffing, facilities, mental health services and custodial practices.

The lawsuit, filed last July by Prison Law Office and Disability Rights California, alleged the county’s two jails confined inmates in “dangerous, inhumane and degrading conditions” and subjected inmates “to harsh, prolonged, and undue isolation.”

One of the plaintiffs of the lawsuit allegedly spent nearly eight years in solitary confinement – 23 hours or more in a small cell every day – experiencing auditory hallucinations, deepened depression, severe anxiety, suicidal thoughts and a vitamin D deficiency from lack of exposure to sunlight.

Other failings in the county jails alleged in the lawsuit included failing to provide adequate mental health care to jail inmates; failing to screen and provide services for inmates with disabilities and medical problems; and chronic custody officer shortages.

“We believe the settlement ... will result in dramatic improvements and is in the best interest of our clients,” said attorney Jessica Valenzuela Santamaria in a statement.

The consent decree agreement – which resolves the dispute without admitting liability – directs the county to:

  • Screen inmates for mental health concerns and suicide risk, and adjust housing, health care and management needs for those inmates. Most inmates will receive more out-of-cell time.
  • Create and enforce polices and trainings that ensure compliance with Americans With Disabilities Act requirements.
  • Make overall changes in staff training and use of force policies, and consult with mental health providers when considering discipline for inmates with cognitive disabilities or mental health issues.
  • Improve the delivery of medical, dental and mental care through timely referrals, responses to requests for care and medication disbursement, chronic care treatment plans, appropriate clinic space and staff training.
  • Consider measures to reduce the jail population and to “prevent the unnecessary incarceration of individuals with serious mental illness.”

The agreement achieves “common ground between the parties,” said Sacramento County Board of Supervisors Chair Patrick Kennedy. The lawsuit came after years of negotiations broke down between the county and inmate and disability rights advocacy groups.

Earlier this year, Sacramento County’s own expert witnesses acknowledged that the county needed to improve the way it handled people in its jails with serious mental illnesses.

The next fiscal year’s county budget beginning July 1 includes $21.7 million in funding for the county to make jail upgrades “as part of continuing efforts to resolve conditions of confinement concerns.”

About $14 million will go toward increased staff, contracts and medical costs to improve conditions of confinement and inmate medical care, while about $8 million will go toward designing a new wing in the main jail to accommodate mentally ill inmates and making other needed improvements.

The jails require between $16 million and $18 million worth of upgrades. Constructing a new facility focused on mentally ill inmates could cost more than $100 million, according to the county.

In addition, a long-planned $89.3 million expansion of the Sacramento County jail’s Elk Grove facility to build a medical and mental health ward is already in the pipeline, with the county expected to award a construction contract in July.

Sacramento County points to realignment efforts in the state beginning in 2011 – the process of shifting thousands of offenders from state prisons to county jails to reduce prison populations as a key factor in the agreed changes as part of the settlement.

The county, like many across the state, has struggled to handle the subsequent influx of older, violent and mentally ill inmates incarcerated for longer sentences. The jail psychiatric services caseload has doubled from 2004 to 2018, according to the county.

McClatchy and ProPublica investigations have found that since realignment, California county inmates are dying at a higher rate, and that there’s been an increase of inmate-on-inmate homicides.

Disability Rights California staff attorney Tifanei Ressl-Moyer said only by reducing the jail population can the county end the conditions “that lead to needless deterioration of the mental and physical health of people in the jail.”

“The County will fail to meet the needs of people in Sacramento if it simply pours money into the jail,” she said in a statement. “It must invest in community services and programs designed to prevent recidivism and reduce the need to incarcerate people who are homeless or have serious mental illness.”

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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