By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – A comprehensive federal class action lawsuit has been filed against both Sacramento County jails, it was announced Tuesday, charging the troubled facilities with “unconstitutional and illegal treatment of people” that has subjected “approximately 3,800 men and women…to dangerous, inhumane, and degrading conditions.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of six prisoners by the Prison Law Office and Disability Rights California. The complaint can be found at: https://www.disabilityrightsca.org/cases/mays-v-county-of-sacramento.
In press comments late Tuesday, Sheriff Scott Jones said he had been talking with prisoner rights groups and the County Supervisors said the changes were not possible because the price tag would be too high.
The downtown and Rio Cosumnes jails have long been considered to be among the worst in the state and nation. Many organizations in Sacramento have pushed for changes to no avail for the nearly 4,000 prisoners, the majority of which have not been convicted of a crime.
Experts who have investigated the conditions at the Sacramento County Jail for a decade or more said the conditions are “unlikely to meet constitutional standards” and identified “serious violations” of the rights of people with disabilities, according the claims in the lawsuit.
According to the federal filing, the county fails to provide even minimal medical care, doesn’t screen for medical conditions and does not respond in a “timely” manner to requests for medical care, leaving prisoners at serious risk of injury or death.
“Individuals held in the county’s jails have been denied essential cancer treatment, lost their eyesight where treatment could have prevented it, and faced needless pain and irreparable harms due to delayed or denied care (failing) adequately screen people with disabilities or provide them necessary accommodations, including wheelchairs, canes, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and other items they need to perform everyday activities,” read the lawsuit.
“The conditions that people with serious mental health needs and disabilities face inside Sacramento County’s jails are beyond the pale,” said Aaron Fischer, Litigation Counsel at Disability Rights California. “You don’t have to take our word for it. The County’s own consultants have condemned the jail system as dangerous, inadequate, and dramatically out of step with contemporary standards.”
For example, Sacramento County locks up hundreds of people in solitary confinement, where they spend all but a few hours a month in a cell alone – they usually don’t see sunlight for months. The suit said at least five people died by suicide in the last 20 months, and hundreds of others became suicidal during that time.
“Defendant regularly subjects people in its custody—the majority of whom have not been convicted of any crime—to harsh, prolonged, and undue isolation. Every day, Defendant locks up hundreds of people in solitary confinement in dark, cramped, filthy cells for 23 ½ hours or more per day. While these individuals are held in isolation, Defendant deprives them of human contact, programming, fresh air, and sunlight. Many people do not get outside to see the sun for weeks or months at a time. The extreme isolation and deprivation place people at serious risk of profound physical and psychological harm,” the lawsuit alleges.
“Defendant incarcerates people with serious mental illness at dangerous and disproportionately high rates. Defendant subjects people with serious mental illness to extreme isolation, with little or no mental health treatment. Defendant’s failure to provide minimally adequate mental health treatment— combined with the deplorable conditions of confinement in the jails—exacerbates individuals’ existing mental illnesses and increases the likelihood that people will suffer serious decompensation or death,” further charges the complaint.
“Sacramento County is well aware of the serious problems inside its jails,” said Margot Mendelson, Staff Attorney at the Prison Law Office. “Our clients are entirely dependent on the jail system for their health care and basic needs. They are suffering needlessly due to the County’s failure to commit the resources to meet its constitutional and legal obligations.”
Disability Rights California and the Prison Law Office have successfully litigated class action cases in jails throughout the State regarding conditions of confinement. “It remains our sincere hope that this case can be resolved without the need for costly litigation,” said Aaron Fischer. “But we are prepared to seek a remedy in court to end the violation of our clients’ rights. Our clients can wait no longer.”