Crime - Sacto 911

‘Punished for trying to kill myself’: Lawyers ask to halt solitary at Sacramento jail

Attorneys this week asked a judge to halt “inhumane” solitary confinement rules in Sacramento County’s jails, saying conditions have not improved at the facilities despite officials’ own acknowledgment of the crisis.

There is no need to wait for a trial in a lawsuit filed seven months ago, attorneys said Tuesday, because even Sacramento County’s own expert witnesses have said the county needs to improve how it handles people in jail who have a serious mental illness.

Since “the facts are not in dispute,” attorneys representing inmates in the county’s jails asked the judge to order officials create a remedial plan of correction.

“This harm is too serious and too urgent to wait for the normal course of business,” said Margot Mendelson, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, in an interview with The Sacramento Bee.

The Prison Law Office and Disability Rights California in July filed the federal lawsuit over jail conditions. But discussions have gone on for years with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jails, and elected officials have balked at settlement options and costs.

Mendelson said the new court filing in U.S. District Court in Sacramento was the most significant development in the case since summer.

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Beyond calling for a judge’s intervention, court papers now include additional comments from people in custody who describe how people’s mental states can deteriorate when they are placed in the overcrowded, under-equipped county facility.

Because the jail lacks enough space for treatment beds, some inmates in psychiatric crisis are being held nearly naked in temporary classrooms that were never meant to hold anyone, attorneys said. The jail also puts people experiencing a psychiatric crisis in small, concrete cells that lack all basic amenities and where a grate in the floor acts as a toilet.

‘There was no toilet’

“Deputies placed me naked in a small safety cell that smelled like urine, was filthy, and was freezing. There was no toilet, just a grate in the floor,” one inmate wrote in a statement for the lawsuit.

Another inmate represented in the lawsuit said he tried to kill himself in his jail cell in October.

Staffers then stripped him out of his clothes and put him “in the hole.”

“I felt like I was being punished for trying to kill myself,” he said in a statement. “... If I feel suicidal again, I am not sure that I would tell anyone at the jail. I do not want to go back to the hole.”

The lawsuit also alleges the understaffed jail fails to provide adequate mental health care to the approximately one-third of the approximately 3,700 inmates who have a mental illness, has sub-par screening methods to detect medical problems, and does not adequately accommodate people who have a disability.

While some of the issues are in line with concerns over treatment and resources raised about jails across the state, Sacramento County’s use of a certain kind of confinement called total separation for those with mental illness is especially concerning, Mendelson said.

‘Total separation’

Three correctional experts hired by the county to evaluate the jail in 2016 wrote in a report that the practice was “unique to Sacramento County,” according to the lawsuit.

Statements from inmates suggest that they “can go weeks, months, and even years with little or no opportunity for social contact. They do not have cellmates and are confined to their cells for 23 ½ to 24 hours a day,” the lawsuit says.

“It is an extreme practice of solitary confinement by any measure,” Mendelson said.

The lawsuit came on the heels of years of negotiations and a settlement process that “broke down” between the county and advocate groups for disability rights and criminal justice reform, according to the complaint.

“These serious problems are longstanding, and are the result of the dangerous over-representation of people with mental health needs who are incarcerated at the jail and the County’s failure to provide the resources to deliver clinically necessary treatment to them,” said Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, an attorney at Disability Rights California, in a written statement. “An adequate remedy will be neither simple nor cheap, but it is urgently needed.”

‘Substantial resources’

Sheriff Scott Jones in July agreed that his department and county officials had worked for three years with the groups and had been close to an agreement that addressed the “changing legal landscape of corrections.” He and the inmate advocates said they were making progress and positive changes — paving the way for a settlement and reform.

“Unfortunately, the implementation of these changes necessitates substantial resources,” Jones told The Bee at the time, “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.

For instance, the county has 20 beds reserved for inmates who need special mental health care. It may need as many as 100 more beds to provide appropriate care, according to depositions cited in the new filing.

County spokeswoman Kim Nava said officials take the lawsuit “very seriously. We continue to work in good faith through the mediation process to reach a resolution to these issues.”

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Jason Pohl reports on criminal justice for The Sacramento Bee, in partnership with ProPublica’s 2019 Local Reporting Network. His current work is examining strains in California county jails after statewide changes involving incarceration. He has reported since 2011 on public safety, mental health and disasters for newspapers in Colorado and Arizona.