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Grand Jury Slams Sacramento County for Delaying Jail Improvements Mandated in Consent Decree

by Douglas Ankney

Delays in improvements mandated in a 2020 consent decree resulted in at least six preventable detainee deaths at Sacramento County jails, according to a grand jury investigative report on June 2, 2023.

As PLN reported, the County’s two lockups were the subject of Mays v. Cty. of Sacramento, a lawsuit that alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 12101, et seq., as well as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), including understaffing, overuse of solitary confinement, failure to provide adequate medical and mental care, and discrimination against prisoners with disabilities. A settlement resulted in the consent decree to reduce jail population and make physical improvements, as well as limiting the use of solitary confinement. [See: PLN, Mar. 2020, p.57.]

The grand jury’s Report said the County was stonewalling on the promised changes, pointing to a letter to the County’s Board of Supervisors dated September 1, 2022, stating that “conditions in the Jails remain deplorable.” Supervisors in December 2022 then approved a new “Intake and Health Services Facility” to remedy finally the ADA and HIPPA violations. But they said it would take five years or longer to complete. According to the Report, that left no “immediate plans to address the many outstanding violations,” even though “[v]igorous interim plan execution is vital to avoid the threat of federal receivership, increased liability for non-­compliance, preventable illness for the jail staff and inmate population, and higher costs” due rising interest rates.

The Report highlighted deficiencies that include: (1) lack of privacy during health examinations, due to inadequate space; (2) inadequate number of booking stations, resulting in bookings taking hours to complete; (3) detainees crowded in holding cells during bookings, without a minimum of six feet of separation; (4) insufficient staffing for medical and mental health care; (5) prisoners at risk of suicide being detained in cells with blind spots and/or held in isolation cells; (6) unsanitary conditions, with soiled floors in the housing areas, holding areas, and medical exam areas along with clogged drains and flies swarming; and (7) frequent rotation of leadership that caused delays in the implementation of the consent decree.

To address these deficiencies, the Report made a number of recommendations, including (1) increasing the number of intake stations by at least three; (2) installing temporary trailers in the parking garage of the Main Jail to alleviate HIPPA and ADA violations; (3) getting supervisors’ rapid approval for funding and construction of an additional 18 mental health treatment rooms by December 31, 2023; (4) creating a non-­rotating executive leadership position to cover compliance with the consent decree; (5) developing and implementing a sanitation and disinfection program; and (6) hiring additional medical staff. See: 2022 -­ 2023 Grand Jurors’ Report: What’s Taking So Long? County Delays Mandated Jail Improvements.

On August 9, 2023, the County and its Sheriff’s Department (SCSD) rejected many of the recommendations, declining to install temporary trailers in the parking garage “due to space and operational constraints.” Supervisors also refused to construct more mental health treatment rooms, instead directing County staff to “test a modular product” for jail “privacy and operational needs.” However, that could not be done within the recommended time frame, they added. Supervisors agreed to the sanitation and disinfection program, but it was not expected to be implemented before March 31, 2024.

SCSD blamed rotation of staff leadership on the County’s failure to approve a “10% pay incentive” in order to “retain the current Captains, Assistant Commanders and Compliance Lieutenants.” The department said it was “researching the feasibility of creating a non-­sworn position in the compliance role.” It also disputed unsanitary conditions cited in the Report, but it promised to consider adding intake stations—after further investigation.

Also in August 2023, an investigation into a spike in jail overdoses led to the arrests of six people—including Zareonna Harris, an employee of contracted jail medical provider Avid Healthcare Services. Harris, along with James Whitfield, Donald Zackery, Tomani Zackeri, Roderick Turk and Dimauri Allendandridge, allegedly smuggled fentanyl, methamphetamine, cocaine and escape tools into the jail. Sheriff Jim Cooper blamed the smuggling operation on “jail medical staff,” which he called “inept.” Cooper also called for Supervisors to return management of the main jail’s medical unit back to SCSD.

In a scathing Sacramento Bee editorial, Dr. Phillip Summers defended his medical staff and put the blame for problems squarely back on Sheriff Cooper and SCSD. Summers explained that the medical unit was removed “from under the Sheriff’s Department in 2018 because the sheriff’s policies and practices have been consistently identified as a central problem in the county’s chronic noncompliance” with the consent decree.

Summers cited examples of SCSD staff interference, such as: canceling or delaying medical visits; preventing pregnant women from attending scheduled obstetrical appointments; postponing specialty care; overriding doctor’s orders; skimping on required medical screenings; completely disregarding requests for medical evaluations; neglecting patients in need of psychiatric treatment; and skipping distribution of medications for days at a time.

These deficiencies, Summers said, were documented by court-­appointed investigators. “Instead of undermining the jail’s medical providers,” he said, “the sheriff needs to devote his energy to ensuring that his staff are doing everything in their power to facilitate healthcare delivery and maintain the health and safety of the incarcerated people that are his responsibility.”

As PLN also reported, former Sheriff Scott Jones underreported jail deaths by excluding those occurring outside of the lockups that were nevertheless attributable to causes within them. For example, 61-­year-­old Clifton Harris was savagely beaten by his cellmate and remained hospitalized on life support for eight months until his family removed him. But his death was not included in the tally of jail deaths because he was not in custody at the time. [See: PLN, Mar. 2021, p.53.]  


Additional source: Sacramento Bee

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