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California Jail Settles Class-Action Lawsuit Over Conditions of Confinement

by Derek Gilna

A federal civil rights suit filed by the Prison Law Office against Santa Clara County, California after a mentally ill prisoner was beaten to death by guards at the county’s jail has settled for policy changes plus $1.6 million in attorneys’ fees and annual payments of $200,000 for compliance monitoring. The settlement, reached in November 2018, requires the jail to follow a monitoring plan that provides for significant reforms related to conditions of confinement, medical care and mental health treatment.

The lawsuit was filed in 2015 after prisoner Michael Tyree was beaten to death, which also sparked an investigation by the county board of supervisors. [See: PLN, Aug. 2018, p.42; Aug. 2017, p.34; Jan. 2017, p.48]. The complaint alleged that Santa Clara County routinely confined both pretrial and post-conviction prisoners in dirty, squalid conditions that violated their constitutional rights.

It sought “injunctive relief compelling [the county] to cease holding people in the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement for prolonged periods, to provide individuals with meaningful notice and opportunities to challenge decisions to place them in solitary confinement, to provide constitutionally adequate healthcare, and to cease the unnecessary and excessive use of force.”

After three years of litigation, the parties finally agreed to a court-supervised settlement that provides for a group of prison experts to monitor compliance with a 46-page remedial plan. According to that plan, attached as an exhibit to the settlement, at-risk prisoners – including those with cognitive disabilities, developmental impairments, traumatic brain injury or dementia – will receive treatment based upon their medical conditions.

The remedial plan further provides for uniform intake procedures and proper medical record-keeping, and the implementation of “a reliable mechanism for continuing inmate medications throughout incarceration” as well as specific procedures for dealing with mental health emergencies. In recognition that prisoners are at increased risk for self-harm soon after arriving at the jail, “The County shall initiate an adequate ongoing quality assurance plan to periodically audit the intake screening process to ensure that staff is asking all required suicide prevention questions to newly admitted inmates.”

According to Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, who worked with the law firm of Cooley LLP in negotiating the settlement in the class-action case, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith showed “leadership and complete transparency and dedication to solutions that addressed the deficiencies” at the jail. 

However, Raj Jayadev, director of the social justice group Silicon Valley De-Bug, expressed concerns that the settlement had not received sufficient input from the affected prisoners. “The most important thing is the guys inside are the plaintiffs and they should dictate their terms of how this agreement plays out,” he said.

The federal district court will retain jurisdiction to ensure compliance with the terms of the settlement agreement. The court granted final approval of the settlement on March 20, 2019. See: Chavez v. County of Santa Clara, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 1:15-cv-05277-RMI. 


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Related legal case

Chavez v. County of Santa Clara