Gerald E. Nichols got some bad news the day he walked out of the Plumas County Jail last year. Before he could leave, a sergeant told him on his way out, he had to hand over his teeth.
Either that, Nichols was told, or he had to pay the $2,688 it cost to provide him a full set of dentures during his two-year, eight-month stay following his arrest and conviction on drug charges.
Nichols didn’t have the money. “I told the sergeant I would not leave without my dentures and would rather stay in jail,” he said in a sworn federal court declaration.
His elderly parents, who drove the 117 miles from Susanville to Quincy to pick him up at the jail, wound up paying for the dentures.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Now, following a judge’s finding that the jail is “not in substantial compliance” with a 25-year-old consent decree, it is Plumas County that is feeling the bite.
One of Nichols’ lawyers on Thursday called the county’s violation of the consent decree that governs the jail’s conditions of confinement “as assault on the Constitution.”
“They are claiming that they can take a person, incarcerate him, and then say that which we provide you we’re going to take away, or charge you an exorbitant fee,” the attorney, Dan Stormer, said. “There is nothing in the Constitution that allows them to turn this into a dental debtor’s prison.”
Meanwhile, Plumas County Counsel R. Craig Settlemire said in an interview with The Bee on Thursday that “we’ve accepted the rulings” issued on Feb. 8 by U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Newman and “we’re working with (plaintiffs’) counsel on developing a policy as to when dentures will be provided to inmates.”
Asked if that means the county will no longer ask inmates who receive county-provided dentures to either give them back or pay for them upon release, Settlemire replied, “That’s correct.”
Judge Newman on Thursday ordered lawyers from both sides to report back to him on July 21 on where they’re at in achieving compliance on the matter of the dentures. The judge also imposed a $250 sanction on Settlemire for his failure to communicate with plaintiffs lawyers on a joint status report that was due on May 1.
A failure to provide adequate dental care was one of a number of alleged constitutional shortcomings that inmates’ rights attorneys identified in a 1989 federal class action lawsuit filed in Sacramento that targeted the Plumas County Jail.
In addition to dental care, the plaintiffs also charged that the county fell short of meeting Eighth Amendment standards that protect against cruel and unusual punishment on the matters of jail overcrowding and understaffing, inmate access to legal materials, and a lack of medical and mental health care for inmates.
Magistrate Judge John F. Moulds on April 21, 1992, approved the consent decree worked out by lawyers for both sides to fix the constitutional shortcomings.
For nearly the next 20 years, the jail in the Plumas County seat of Quincy mostly met the demands of the decree, with little action taking place in the federal courthouse 144 driving miles away in Sacramento.
In 2012, however, plaintiffs’ lawyers embarked on an inspection of the jail and found “serious violations,” according to a declaration by one of the attorneys, Paul W. Comiskey, in March 2015.
The problems, he said, related to the expansion of the jail from a capacity of 37 to 67 inmates but without any increase in staffing. As a result, problems had re-emerged in the law library and with mental health and medical care, according to Comiskey’s declaration.
Gerald Nichols, meanwhile, who is now 47, was arrested in March 2013 on a methamphetamine case. Released the next month and then re-arrested, Nichols was kept in custody until he was convicted in October 2013 and sentenced to a state prison term of six years and eight months.
Under California’s realignment plan, he served his time in the county jail, which he said in his declaration was less equipped than state prisons to provide him with health, dental and vision services.
Nichols said that as his teeth went from bad to worse. “I requested dentures on multiple occasions over the course of two years,” he stated.
The county took him to an outside dentist on July 6, 2015, who removed Nichols’ last seven remaining teeth but who refused to provide him with the dentures.
According to court papers filed by the Plumas County counsel, the dentist, Dr. Dale Harris, did not think the dentures were medically necessary – the standard set in the consent decree. The dentist said that if need be, Nichols could be switched to a soft-food diet.
“The ability to easily eat solid food is not a constitutional requirement,” Settlemire wrote.
Nichols, meanwhile, met Comiskey while the inmates’ rights lawyer was inspecting the jail. He wrote to him about the denture denial, and Comiskey contacted the county.
On Oct. 1, 2015, Nichols got his dentures, but Comiskey said the county attorneys later told him they “were going to consider dentures to be like a cane or a wheelchair or some other assistive device, and they were going to take them away,” upon release.
In his declaration, Nichols, who now works as a motel manager in Susanville, said when he walked out of jail on April 22, 2016, “The sergeant informed me for the first time that I would have to surrender my dentures.”
“I protested,” Nichols said, “saying I could not pay for the dentures myself and insisted that I keep them even if it meant being returned to my cell.”
Ultimately, he said, the county “forced my elderly parents (who live on fixed incomes) to pay $2,688.”
“Having to pay that high amount for my dentures nearly bankrupted them,” Nichols said.
Stormer, the Pasadena attorney who worked on the Plumas County Jail case with Comiskey and others, said his side believes the family should be reimbursed by the county and it plans to bring up the issue at an upcoming hearing.
Settlemire wrote in his court papers, “The County-provided dentures were to be retained by the County for use by Mr. Nichols if he ever returned to the jail.” The county attorney said the practice was “reasonable, practical, appropriate, and in the best interests of the County and Mr. Nichols.”
If he bought the dentures, Nichols “will have a greater incentive to properly care” for them,” Settlemire wrote. If he didn’t take care of them, on his hypothetical return, “the County will have the funds to fit him with new dentures if determined to be medically necessary,” Settlemire said.
Stormer said, “I have never heard of this policy anyplace, anywhere” in his 40-plus years of law practice that has focused heavily in inmates rights.
His firm’s court papers cited the state prison system and the Sacramento and Placer county jails as examples of institutions that let the inmates keep their new teeth when they get out.
“They all provide them,” Stormer said. “They don’t stand at the door and hand you a bill or take your teeth.”