Charging that Sacramento County’s two jails confine inmates in “dangerous, inhumane and degrading conditions,” inmate advocates filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Tuesday against the county seeking wholesale changes in how the jail system is run.
The suit, which seeks class action status for the roughly 3,700 inmates held in the jails each day, follows years of negotiations by the groups and the county to agree to a settlement that would avoid legal action.
“After two and a half years of negotiations, the settlement process broke down,” the suit says, and the groups are seeking relief from the U.S. District Court in Sacramento.
“Defendant regularly subjects people in its custody — the majority of whom have not been convicted of any crime — to harsh, prolonged, and undue isolation,” the lawsuit alleges. “Every day, defendant locks up hundreds of people in solitary confinement in dark, cramped, filthy cells for 23½ hours or more per day.
“While these individuals are held in isolation, defendant deprives them of human contact, programming, fresh air, and sunlight. Many people do not get outside to see the sun for weeks or months at a time.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of six inmates by Disability Rights California and the Prison Law Office, two groups that advocate for improved conditions for inmates statewide.
Sheriff Scott Jones said Tuesday after the suit was filed that his department and county officials had worked for years with the groups and had been close to an agreement.
“The Sheriff’s Department has spent countless staff hours working well with DRC and the PLO for the better part of three years, to address their specific concerns as well as adapt to the changing legal landscape of corrections,” Jones said in a statement to The Bee. “Throughout the course of this relationship — with full involvement of County Counsel and County leadership — we had already made some positive changes, and had reached a place of conceptual agreement on most remaining significant issues.
“Unfortunately, the implementation of these changes necessitates substantial resources and it is solely the Board of Supervisors’ decision whether to supply the resources or litigate the issues.”
The county said it rejected the notion of settling with the groups because the changes sought could have cost $160 million in capital outlays and another $50 million a year.
“Accepting these demands would require us to make drastic reductions in all of the services the county offers, which would have catastrophic consequences on the General Fund and a devastating effect countywide on our residents’ quality of life,” Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Peters said in a statement.
Peters added that the county already had made a number of improvements at the jails and that implementing the changes the plaintiffs sought would have forced cuts to many programs, including mental health and alcohol services for the community, sheriff’s patrols, parkway cleanup programs and efforts to reduce homelessness.
According to the lawsuit, some inmates in the Sacramento County Mail Jail and the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center are housed in cells covered in feces and urine.
“Many lack outside windows or visibility from one cell to another, and only small windows to the dayroom that can be covered by flaps, increasing the isolation and sensory deprivation,” the lawsuit says, adding that Sacramento has a unique program called “total separation,” or “T-Sep,” for inmates who officials determine cannot be in the presence of other inmates.
One of the inmate plaintiffs in the suit, Leertese Beirge, has a history of serious mental illness and suicide attempts, but still was housed in T-Sep for more than seven months “with essentially no human contact” and later attempted suicide, the lawsuit says.
The suit also says that suicide rates in the jail are twice the national average and that at least five inmates have killed themselves since November 2016.
Conditions in the jails and treatment of inmates have been the subject of numerous lawsuits over the years, many of them resulting in financial settlements to plaintiffs. But the latest lawsuit says its allegations are based largely on reports by national experts who were hired by the county itself to evaluate the jails.
“Since early 2016, defendant has contracted with five nationally recognized subject matter experts to assess conditions in the jails and make recommendations,” the lawsuit says. “The experts issued written findings consistent with those of Disability Rights California, condemning the conditions of confinement in the jails, identifying serious risks of psychological and physical harm to people in the jails, and calling for significant and immediate changes to address the deficiencies.”
Among the county’s failings alleged in the lawsuit:
▪ failure to provide adequate mental health care to jail inmates, about one-third of whom have a mental illness.
▪ failure to screen incoming inmates for medical problems and to provide proper medical care to inmates in the jail.
▪ lack of screening and services for inmates with disabilities, including a failure to provide wheelchairs, canes, eyeglasses and hearing aids.
▪ and chronic understaffing of custody officers.