Disabled inmates subjected to excessive solitary confinement in Sacramento County

Isolation practices may have facilitated inmate deaths

Sacramento County is isolating too many jail inmates in small cells for prolonged periods of time, sometimes for 24 hours a day, and may be headed for a class-action lawsuit.

That’s the substance and threat of a scathing review, first released in August, by two groups that examined the treatment of inmates at the main jail downtown and Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, both of which are operated by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

Attorneys with Disability Rights California and the Prison Law Office conducted tours of the facilities in April. Together, the two jails hold about 4,300 people, including pretrial defendants and federal immigration detainees awaiting deportation proceedings.

PLO staff attorney Kelly Knapp says attorneys weren’t provided access to immigration detainees, but found widespread abuse and neglect, like inmates being confined in small cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, and sometimes crammed two to a cell designed for one. “We saw these issues applied systemwide,” she said, adding that the issues were consistent with many jails around the state.

According to the resulting 33-page report, inmates with mental-health disabilities weren’t exempted, either, and the “harsh conditions” may have “resulted in two recent deaths,” DRC says in a release.

Specifically, the double-celling of inmates with mental-health disabilities may have contributed to a December 2014 homicide in which a bipolar inmate warned staff he was going to “beat up” his cellmate, a mentally ill sex offender who harassed him and soiled himself. The DRC report states: “Custody staff took no action, and the second prisoner was found dead the next day.”

Five inmates have died in jail custody this year so far. That matches last year’s total, which was the most since 2008.

The report also found inadequate mental-health care, overcrowding and violations of disabled inmates’ rights. According to DRC, Sheriff Scott Jones agreed to address some of the Americans with Disabilities Act violations. And the sheriff’s department was poised to let two consulting firms evaluate housing and mental health concerns at its jails. The agreements with Puget Sound Mental Health PS Inc. and Eldon Vail total $75,000 for a one-year period, beginning January 21, 2016, according to a county staff report, and were due for a procedural vote by the board of supervisors on Wednesday. The action won’t further reforms so much as gather a year’s worth of additional information. Puget Sound will provide written evaluations of the jails’ mental health care, while Vail will evaluate all housing units.

The county says consultants will be given “reasonable access” to the jails and inmate records, and allowed to conduct “confidential and voluntary interviews” with inmates and staff. At the end of the review period, in January 2017, the consultants will have 90 days to submit their evaluations. The county doesn’t indicate whether any action will result from these reports, but Knapp says it’s a positive first step that originated from frank follow-up talks. “This is a much less expensive way to address problems than defending litigation,” she said. “If they don’t make the reforms, then we pursue litigation. And they’re looking at class-action litigation.”

Describing itself as a state- and federally-designated protection agency, Disability Rights California is authorized “to inspect and monitor conditions in any facility that holds people with disabilities,” its report states. The Sacramento County jails were one of six county-run correctional facilities the agency toured this year, including two juvenile halls. Knapp says Sacramento was chosen based on the amount of “complaints that we received over the last year from inmates and their families.”

A sheriff’s spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment before print deadline.