A report prepared by a San Francisco law firm following interviews with 944 prisoners and 33 staff members at the Santa Clara County Jail found numerous complaints of both physical and verbal abuse, uneven enforcement of rules, harassment and a grievance system that fails to recognize prisoners’ legitimate complaints.
According to the report, jail guards often use excessive force “in routine jail movements and lockdowns.” The prisoners who were interviewed “emphasized that officers’ use of force does not always stop when an emergency ends; physical violence and pepper spray often continue even after an inmate is fully restrained and no longer a threat to anyone’s safety.”
Twenty-seven percent of the prisoners and three to four percent of staff at the jail responded to a survey distributed by the law firm of Moscone, Emblidge & Otis in January and February 2016. The survey and interviews were conducted for a Blue Ribbon Commission appointed by the county to examine conditions at the jail, the year after three guards were charged with killing a mentally ill prisoner.
The law firm did its best to speak with prisoners in a confidential setting, one-on-one, but many said they were discouraged by guards from participating. Some complained that their bunks and cells were “tossed” by jail staff while they were at the interviews, with personal hygiene items confiscated for no purpose other than harassment.
The interviews disclosed ten significant issues. The first was a lack of confidence by “inmates, staff and families” in the grievance process. Prisoners alleged that guards often refuse to accept grievance requests, and harass those who submit them. The second issue was “gaps between policy and practice.” While prisoners and their family members acknowledged that the jail had policies regulating the use of force and providing for the dissemination of rules and regulations, in practice many guards and other jail staff treated prisoners in a demeaning manner, and often showed partiality in their behavior.
The third area of concern was “avoidable delays and deficiencies in medical care,” including poor mental health treatment. Fourth, “Inmates consistently complain of poor hygiene and sanitation conditions,” including insufficient laundry materials and cleaning supplies.
Issue five was “insufficient and inconsistent out-of-cell time”; sixth, a “lack of transparency in the classification and inmate discipline systems”; seventh, perceived poorer treatment for state prisoners serving time in the county facility; and eighth, poor morale and understaffing among guards, often resulting in unsafe conditions. The ninth issue revealed by the interviews was a lack of accountability and discipline for guards and other staff who engage in misconduct, and finally, tenth, the under-use of the Inmate Welfare Fund, which is used to provide needed supplies to indigent prisoners.
Attorney Aaron Zisser, a special consultant to the Blue Ribbon Commission who previously worked in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, found “there really isn’t any meaningful independent oversight” at the jail, and recommended the appointment of an oversight panel to ensure changes are made to address the concerns reflected in the law firm’s comprehensive report. The panel should be separate from the Sheriff’s Office, he said, and report to the county’s Board of Supervisors.
Some changes are already in progress. According to a January 7, 2016 news report, 22 Santa Clara jail guards have been fired and 27 suspended since 2010, for misconduct ranging from use of excessive force and having sexual relationships with prisoners to DUI and improperly accessing law enforcement databases.
Sources: www.scgov.com, www.kqed.org, www.mercurynews.com
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