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Federal Class Action Settlement Aims to Eliminate Horrific Conditions at Santa Barbara, California Jails in Three Years

The settlement followed over two years of investigation and litigation initiated by prisoners and families of prisoners who were incarcerated at the Santa Barbara County Jail. They were represented by Disability Rights California, Prison Law Office, and King & Spalding LLP.

Sheriff Bill Brown, along with the Sheriff’s Office and several other county officials, acknowledged that the jails were substandard, and that much work needed to be done to improve the facilities: “Although our custody professionals have performed admirably for years, they have been hampered in their efforts by limited resources and an obsolete and inefficient jail facility that is more than 50 years old,” he said. 

“There will be many difficulties in meeting the myriad requirements it contains, but I have confidence that the dedicated men and women in our Custody Operations Branch will rise up and see to it that we meet those challenges,” the sheriff added.

The complaint alleged that, “Defendants ... systematically and knowingly (1) fail to provide adequate medical and mental health care to the people housed in the jail; (2) overuse isolation and solitary confinement; (3) discriminate against and fail to accommodate people with disabilities; and (4) provide inhumane, unsanitary, and unsafe living conditions.”

It was further alleged that these conditions violate prisoners’ rights under the “Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and California State law.”

The complaint went on to note that, “(e)very day, many prisoners – including those with serious health conditions and disabilities – must sleep on the floor due to overcrowding at the Jail. Defendants hold scores of people, many with serious mental illness, indefinitely in solitary confinement cells, and on most days deny them any time out of their cell for exercise, recreation, or sunlight.”

It was further alleged that these horrific conditions caused numerous suicide attempts and that “in one recent five-month period alone, at least twelve (12) prisoners attempted suicide while in solitary confinement, more than one attempted suicide every two weeks, including one man who died.”

The horrific conditions resulted in the deaths of at least 10 individuals at the jail since 2011, eight from serious medical conditions that were not adequately treated, as well as two suicides. The complaint listed many problems, including short staffing, poor training of jail and medical personnel, and inadequate access for the jail’s population to timely treatment and needed prescription medication.

The approved 84-page settlement between the parties included a 62-page plan, that enumerated changes in county monitoring of the jails’ private medical contract, improved access to care, additional chronic care and pharmacy services, better record keeping, and improved quality management.  It also set forth a plan for improved mental health treatment, including greater access to care, and restrictions on restraint and isolation. There also was renewed emphasis on suicide prevention, and a provision for the appointment of an ADA coordinator, to ensure that prisoners with disabilities had equal access to the improved jail programs.

As part of the settlement, plaintiffs’ counsel received $1,132,809 for reasonable fees and expenses incurred, as well as a provision for a maximum of $125,000 a year to provide monitoring and enforcement of the agreement. The district court retained jurisdiction over the parties to ensure enforcement of its provisions. See: Murray, et al., v. County of Santa Barbara, Case No. 2:17-cv-08805-GW-JPR, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.) 


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Related legal case

Murray, et al., v. County of Santa Barbara