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Pre-Release Jail-Abuse Questionnaires Said to Pressure Prisoners

by John E. Dannenberg

Civil rights advocates and attorneys have raised concerns over a recent policy implemented by the Sacramento County, California jail system whereby prisoners are asked to sign a “screening form” prior to release that inquires whether they were mistreated during their incarceration. The pre-release form is purportedly part of a strategy to improve jail operations. However, some prisoners who were interviewed said they felt pressured to complete the form in a non-adversarial way so they would not jeopardize or delay their release.

Michael Risher, staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, noted that “someone who’s about to be released has an enormous incentive not to delay that release for even a second.” While a pre-release survey might have benefits, the potential coercive effect would distort the results so as to make its value questionable.

The Sheriff’s office feels the potential benefits outweigh these concerns, as the pre-release forms bring problems to their attention at an earlier time (albeit at the end of, not during, a prisoner’s jail stay). Admittedly the Sacramento jail needs such input, based on past problems. Due to excessive force claims in 2005, the county instigated the survey in 2006 as a preemptive measure against lawsuits.

The form asks whether prisoners have suffered injuries or inadequate medical treatment. However, if they answer “yes” regarding injuries, they must first be seen by a doctor or nurse prior to release, resulting in a delay. If they have a complaint about medical treatment they are routed to a supervisor. The forms are filled out by jail staff, who ask the prisoners questions and then request that they sign the completed form (which is optional). But even if they do not sign, they are released.

Sheriff’s Captain Scott Jones said he viewed the forms as a way prisoners could provide feedback, and as a means for jail staff to correct and improve their services. More to the point, the pre-release survey could also help reduce lawsuits. In fact, the number of abuse complaints involving the Sacramento County Jail dropped by half (to six) between 2006 and 2007.

A skeptical Justice Reform Coalition director, Rev. Ashiya Odeye, noted that nowhere on the form does it say the survey is optional – which it is. More telling is a report from Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who said a pre-release form was used against one of his clients in a recent arbitration hearing. His client had not listed on the form the complaints she raised following her release from jail.

Merin noted the state of mind of a prisoner seeking his or her freedom: “[They] don’t know what their rights are in jail. ... They think what happens to them is just standard procedure. What they want to do is get out.”

Patrick Benko, 24, a college student, spent 10 hours at the Sacramento County Jail after an arrest for suspicion of intoxication. He said deputies yelled at him and told him he had no rights. He also was not fed. Then, jail officers allegedly told him he could not leave if he didn’t sign the pre-release form. “I signed the form because I wanted to go home,” he said.

Dianne Fairl, after serving a short stint for drunk driving, remembered seeing jail prisoners being treated roughly. But she did not note that on the form. “It’s a pressured situation, it’s a no-win situation. No one wants any trouble because everyone wants to get the heck out of there,” she stated.

It appears that a well-intentioned effort to improve bureaucratic services by adding a pre-release step to the incarceration process may in fact be stifling the desired response to complaints about Sacramento’s jail system. Then again, if the actual intent is to reduce potential litigation, the “screening form” policy may be a resounding success.

Source: Sacramento Bee

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