Grand Jury Investigates Santa Cruz County Jail Deaths
by N.H. Putnam, Sin Barras
Santa Cruz County, California is seen by many as a model for enlightened jail policies. But in May 2014 the Santa Cruz County Grand Jury released a report on the unusual number of deaths in the county jail in 2012 and 2013, titled “Five Deaths in Santa Cruz: An Investigation of In-Custody Deaths.”
The Grand Jury found that a lack of after-hours mental health evaluations and failures to follow procedures on the part of jail staff likely contributed to the deaths. The deaths and the report have county residents questioning whether jail is the appropriate solution for drug addiction and mental health problems.
In the mid-1990s, Santa Cruz County was a model site for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a program that is now recognized as a nationwide standard for reducing incarceration of juveniles. In response to a 2004 Santa Cruz Grand Jury report that found crowded and unsafe conditions in the county jail, Santa Cruz expanded several programs designed to provide alternatives to incarceration. These programs have been credited with allowing the county to reduce incarceration rates to significantly below the statewide average.
In the first years after California prison “realignment” legislation (AB 109) in 2011 started shifting state prison populations to county jails, Santa Cruz was one of the counties credited by watchdog groups for presenting realignment plans that relied less on building more jails than on increasing community programs. In 2014, however, Santa Cruz was one of 48 California counties seeking budgetary approval for more jail construction. Given its history of progressive reforms, many in Santa Cruz were shocked by a cluster of deaths in the county jail and have demanded to know what they mean.
In less than 11 months from August 2012 to July 2013, five people died in the Santa Cruz County Jail. Christy Sanders, 27, died after her lungs collapsed on August 25, 2012. On October 6, Richard Prichard died at the age of 59 of a heart attack. Brant Monnett was 47 when he died of a drug overdose on November 20. Bradley Dreher, 47, and Amanda Sloan, 30, each committed suicide by hanging, Dreher on January 13, 2013 and Sloan on July 17, 2013.
Some had been in custody only for hours, while others had been in for weeks or months. Based on California and nationwide averages, this was more than five times the expected number of deaths for a jail the size of Santa Cruz’s.
Christy Sanders had been in jail for nearly two weeks for violating parole. According to the Grand Jury’s report, in the week before her death she suffered a seizure, had difficulty breathing and was denied multiple requests to be taken to the hospital.
Brant Monnett was arrested for violating his parole by being in possession of a needle and trying to run from police. He told jail staff that he would be withdrawing from methadone, which lasts much longer in the blood than heroin, and was showing symptoms of overdose the morning after his arrest. The Grand Jury found that he should have been transferred to the hospital or placed in a special observation cell, but was not.
Richard Prichard had been arrested for DUI with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit, but he wasn’t placed in a “sobering cell.” The Grand Jury report speculates that officers at the booking desk might not have placed him in one because the required checks every 15 minutes would have disrupted their routines on a busy night.
Brad Dreher was arrested on a Friday for making a threat of violence after unsuccessfully trying to get prescriptions for Xanax and Valium from a medical clinic. He told jail staff that he suffered from mental health issues and was without his normal medications. He was referred to the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a division of the County Health Services Agency assigned to the jail to provide mental health evaluations and services. Because the CIT is not available on nights and weekends, he was not evaluated before his death on Sunday.
Amanda Sloan had been in custody for over eight months after being shot in the leg by police during a confrontation in which she allegedly fired gunshots from inside her house before coming outside and aiming a gun at herself. According to press reports, her three children had been separated from each other and placed in foster care, and days before she committed suicide she was informed by a county social worker that she would lose custody of them permanently.
The for-profit California Forensic Medical Group (CFMG) took over the provision of medical care to county jail prisoners on September 17, 2012. As in many cases around the state, county supervisors voted to outsource medical care to save money.
CFMG is a privately-held corporation based in Monterey that got its start providing medical care to prisoners in the Monterey County Jail in 1984 and has since expanded to win contracts in 65 facilities in 27 California counties. The company is currently defending against a number of lawsuits, including over the deaths of two prisoners in January 2014 in the Monterey County Jail.
Alarmed by the four deaths in the jail between August and January, local Santa Cruz group Sin Barras organized a demonstration to call attention to the issue on April 6, 2013. The Santa Cruz Sentinel covered the story: “Report blasts Main Jail over inmate deaths: Five deaths over 11 months spark reform calls.”
The Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury is a group of 19 private citizens selected to serve for one or two years by the supervising judge of the county’s Superior Court. The Grand Jury has the power to initiate investigations into the workings of all city and county governments and to publish its findings. After the demonstration organized by Sin Barras, the Grand Jury conducted an investigation into the deaths in the jail.
While the number of deaths was extremely unusual for a jail of its size, the Grand Jury did not find an unusual level of incompetence or cruelty at the jail. If something out of the ordinary was wrong with how the jail was being run, it has been covered up successfully, at least so far.
It seems just as likely that these deaths, and the public attention they attracted, are an example of a series of sad coincidences briefly bumping business-as-usual in the Prison Industrial Complex across the line into newsworthiness. The real culprits being the lack of health care, mental health care and help for drug addicts outside the law enforcement system.
N.H. Putnam is a member of Sin Barras. Sin Barras, without (prison) bars in Spanish, is a community-based group out of Santa Cruz that works to build coalitions to eradicate the prison industrial complex. Sin Barras is a member organization of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB). N.H. Putnam and Sin Barras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 8443, Santa Cruz, CA 95061-8443.
This article was first published by the San Francisco Bay View (www.sfbayview.com) on August 3, 2014; it is reprinted with permission.
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