Suicide cells

As inmate complaints surged by more than 500 percent in seven years, fewer were resolved through ‘corrective action,’ records show

As inmate complaints have risen at the main jail, fewer of them are being corrected.

As inmate complaints have risen at the main jail, fewer of them are being corrected.

Illustration by maria ratinova

Earlier this year, authorities arrested Defei Chen on suspicion of running a small-time marijuana grow inside of a weathered one-story home in the Avondale neighborhood of South Sacramento. The 57-year-old man was booked into the main jail just shy of noon on March 21, jail logs show. Two weeks later, he was dead of an apparent asphyxiation.

According to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which operates the downtown jail on I Street, a custodial deputy conducting a routine check in the predawn hours of April 4 found Chen leaning against the door of the cell he shared with another inmate. When the deputy opened the door, Chen fell to the floor with a ligature around his neck.

In a release to the media, the Sheriff’s Department stated it had no reason to suspect foul play. He was just another suicide inside the county jail.

According to data obtained by SN&R, more than 80 inmates have attempted to kill themselves inside either the main jail or Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove over the past decade. Most of the attempts have occurred inside the main jail, including nine last year and two through February of this year.

The attempts are symptomatic of a teetering system, say prisoner advocates and experts on mass incarceration. Their thesis is simple: A sicker inmate population, chronic understaffing and an overreliance on solitary confinement have turned the main jail into a dungeon of psychological torment. That’s the central message of a class action lawsuit leveled against the county in July. It’s also the theme that emerges from a decade’s worth of complaints by inmates, an overview of which was obtained by SN&R.

Built three decades ago for individuals awaiting trial, the main jail also came to be a place for inmates with special mental health needs. As a result, suicides are a perennial concern, though a county grand jury found in 2002 that the jail’s suicide rate was slightly below the state average. But that’s about the time that suicides started to go up.

Since 2002, at least 27 people have taken their lives inside the main jail, according to a review of annual reports from the inspector general. (The figure is likely higher as the county left its inspector general’s office vacant from 2013 through 2015, meaning there were no reports for those years.) Jail officials have sought to make the main jail safer, replacing easily tearible bedsheets with thick blankets and fencing off upper tiers to prevent jumpers.

But attempts are still common, despite a sliding jail population. Downtown’s high-rise lockup is also a black box when it comes to other information. In a September 5 letter responding to SN&R’s public records request, the Sheriff’s Department acknowledged that it doesn’t track assaults on inmates, jail rapes or its use of disciplinary housing.

Rick Braziel, whom Sheriff Scott Jones recently forced out as inspector general, said the reason the department couldn’t provide these figures is because the main jail still logs most of these incidents on paper, not digitally.

Without hard data about inmate safety, what’s left to sift through are the complaints. According to an overview provided by the Sheriff’s Department, inmates complained 16,880 times about their treatment over a period of 10 years and four months spanning January 1, 2008, and May 15 of this year.

The department used to take those complaints seriously. Then two things happened: California “realigned” nonviolent prisoners of the state into local custody, and Sheriff Scott Jones came to power. Between the time Jones took office in 2010 and 2015, the most recent year for which his department provided a complete breakdown, formal grievances at the main jail rose nearly 72 percent.

Over the same period, however, corrective action plummeted. In 2009, the year before Jones took office, 47 percent of inmate grievances were substantiated in some way and prompted action. In 2015, less than 1 percent of complaints were corrected.

Instead of correcting problems, the Sheriff’s Department began resolving them, records show. By 2015, the department claimed 91 percent of inmates’ complaints had been resolved, though it’s unclear how. A sheriff’s spokesman didn’t respond to SN&R’s inquiry.

Speaking on background, a sheriff’s official said that prison realignment beginning in fall 2011 changed the complexion of local jails. Once occupied by suspects awaiting trial or offenders whiling away short sentences, the influx of state prisoners brought in a more sophisticated population that knew how to game the system and manipulate new inmates, the official said.

Behind the scenes, prisoner advocates and private consultants spent years urging county officials to reform their jails.

“When we have a system where we detain and incarcerate people, we have to make sure we’re treating them humanely, no matter who they are, what they did or what they are alleged to have done,” said Aaron J. Fischer, a litigation counsel at Disability Rights California.

Settlement talks broke down this summer, after the county deemed the groups’ proposals to fix its jail system too costly. The Sheriff’s Department and Correctional Health Services estimated they would need to add 195 new positions. According to the county’s chief fiscal officer, Britt Ferguson, that would mean an extra $55 million coming out of the general fund each year—and that’s if the county could bond out some of the $160 million in estimated capital expenditures.

At an August 7 Board of Supervisors meeting, Ferguson cautioned that these figures were only estimates. Supervisors expressed no appetite to entertain them.

Fischer, whose group is behind the class action, stressed that the dollar figure is the county’s, not plaintiffs'. Fischer said he expected the county to formally respond to the lawsuit this week.

“What we want is the problem to be solved,” he told SN&R. “If we’re able to reach a settlement, that’s great. But we’re not going to be waiting—and we’re going to be prosecuting the case as expeditiously as we can to get relief for our clients."