Federal Judge Soon to Rule on Final Class Action Status of Sacramento County Jails Lawsuit

Inmate Treatment Descriptions Unsuitable for Holiday Season

By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – ‘Tis the season to be jolly? Peace and goodwill to all? Well, maybe not for some housed in Sacramento County jails.

Just days before Christmas, the Davis Vanguard was alerted that a federal judge will soon rule on the certification of a federal class action lawsuit against both Sacramento County jails – the filing charges the long-troubled facilities with “unconstitutional and illegal treatment” of about 3,800 men and women, and has subjected them to ”dangerous, inhumane, and degrading conditions.”

Details – after the Vanguard analyzed the lawsuit describing the treatment to inmates – are disturbing and horrific in nature, and unsuitable during these “happy” holidays when “peace and goodwill to all” echoes through “the halls.”

Declarations by Sacramento County Jail inmates/plaintiffs read in large part like something prisoners of war might divulge – wounds not treated and allowed to rot, blindness caused by a failure of treatment,  no exposure to sunlight for months and even years, total isolation with no access to human contact, inhumane conditions and inhumane treatment.

A synopsis of those declarations by prisoner plaintiffs – including some who have been incarcerated, still awaiting trials for up to 10 years – are available at the bottom of this story.

The lawsuit, filed last July 31, 2018, ensued after a several-year negotiation with the County of Sacramento broke down. https://www.disabilityrightsca.org/cases/mays-v-county-of-sacramento

The court has now signaled it’s about to make a final ruling on the certification of the suit as a class action, according to plaintiff lawyers, Disability Rights California and the Prison Law Office. A tentative ruling by a magistrate judge in November supported the class action.

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,” reads 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 two years, and hundreds of others became suicidal during that time.

The lawsuit alleges, in part: “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.”

“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.”

Plaintiff #1: “I am diagnosed with mastocytosis , which means that I have chronic respiratory and allergy needs. On at least fifteen occasions, I have been transported from the Jail to a hospital for emergency medical care for intubations and anaphylaxis treatment. I believe that proper treatment of my condition would have prevented many, if not all, of my hospital emergency room visits.

“On one occasion, I told jail staff that I was experiencing hives all over my body and shortness of breath due to an allergic reaction. The medical staff accused me of lying and did not provide me with the treatment I needed. I spent the night fearing that my throat would close up entirely. And the itching was excruciating; I scratched so much that my skin bled. When (staff) decided to transport me to a hospital. The hospital kept me as an inpatient for more than a month to recover from the incident.

“In 2015, medical staff told me that I need to see a glaucoma specialist about my declining eyesight. I have reminded the Jail’s in-house ophthalmologist every time I see him, and I have submitted numerous medical service requests about this…(three years later) I have lost nearly all vision in my left eye. The vision in my right eye has also deteriorated, I understand that I am at risk of becoming permanently blind.

“I lost hope and it became difficult to cope in the isolated cell. I felt lonely and afraid for my health. I was so stressed that I could not take it anymore. I tried to end my life by swallowing several pieces of metal I had found . I then created a noose out of my bedsheets, wrapped it around my neck and attempted to hang myself. I was told that jail staff found me unconscious on the floor.”

Plaintiff #2: “I am diagnosed with mental health disorders and take psychotropic medications to manage my symptoms. I have struggled with thoughts of suicide, and have attempted suicide on more than one occasion. When I first arrived at Sacramento County Jail…Staff placed me alone in a cell and did not permit me to interact with other people. I received no more than thirty minutes out of my cell every other day. This meant that I could not communicate with my family.

“This, on top of the isolation, made me want to give up. I soon stopped even leaving my cell during the minimal times I was permitted. I also stopped bothering to get out of my bed for count. I became mentally exhausted and suicidal.

“I have told staff that I felt suicidal on at least four occasions. Each time, my clothes were taken away and I was either placed in a cold cell or in a large classroom. The cell was a dark and bare room with only a grate in the floor to use as a toilet. The classroom was just as bad. It was brightly lit and surrounded by wide windows for anyone (inmates, staff, and visitors) passing by to see me in my most vulnerable state, with only a safety smock to cover my body. Sometimes I would tell staff that I felt better in order to escape the cell or the classroom, because of how uncomfortable and humiliated I felt.”

Plaintiff #3: “I am diagnosed with severe cataracts and have limited vision. My doctor and jail medical staff have told me that I need surgery to treat my cataracts, and that without timely surgery, I am at risk of complete blindness (but) I have not received such a surgery for over fourteen months . Without the treatment that medical staff say I need, I have completely lost vision in my right eye and the vision in my left eye continues to get worse.

“I also experience increased and painful pressure behind my eyes. Because of my untreated eye condition, I also often become too dizzy to stand. Because of my limited and worsening vision, I asked jail staff to place me in a cell on the lower tier, so that I did not have scale the stairs to my bed. My request for this housing accommodation was denied, and I was housed on an upper tier for months. It was a scary journey every time I had to go down and up the stairs for meals, medication, or other activities.

“(T)he jail held me in an isolation unit…(but) I have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and depressive disorder. My experience in isolation units in the jail has aggravated my mental health symptoms in a way that I believe will affect me the rest of my life…staff kept me alone in my cell all day, except for no more than thirty minutes every other day when staff permitted me to shower and use the phone.”

Plaintiff #4: “I was identified as a polytrauma patient, which means I have experienced serious injuries to multiple parts of my body, including a fractured pelvis and injuries to a network of nerves that connect to my spinal cord. The jail refused to give me a wheelchair when I asked for it. Instead, they gave me a walker without wheels and that was too heavy for me to maneuver given my condition. When I asked for a different walker that was lighter and had wheels, medical staff did not provide one.

“As a result, I had a very difficult time getting around inside the jail. I tripped over the walker many times. I was constantly dizzy, in extreme pain, and exhausted. Many of the jail staff watched me fall and even cry. I grew very tired of not being able to walk and going through all of this , and I even considered suicide.

“Last year, I was placed in disciplinary segregation for nearly one month. The cell was small and filthy. The staff placed magnetic slabs over the small window on the cell door. I could not see outside of my cell to know the time of day or to see other people. I had no normal interactions with other human beings. For weeks, I was not permitted to leave my cell – I could not take a shower, make phone calls, or even take out the trash that was accumulating in my cell.”

Plaintiff #5: I no longer have function in the lower half of my body, including in both of my legs. I use a wheelchair for mobility (but) I cannot safely access many physical spaces and activities at the jail.

“I cannot get into the confidential attorney visiting booth using my wheelchair. The entrance to the booth is at a very sharp right angle and is too narrow for my wheelchair. The threshold in the doorway is also too high for my wheelchair to get over, and the door itself is heavy and closes quickly without any way for me to safely prop it open as I enter. Every visit from my attorney is a harrowing experience for me.

“For each meeting, I have to leave my wheelchair outside of the booth, which means that I have to
maneuver my body into the attorney booth in a way that is dangerous and painful. There is a small steel stool that is anchored to the floor inside the booth, which I cannot reach from the door without crawling across the floor. Instead, I typically drag a plastic chair to the booth, and heave it into the booth while I am still in my wheelchair.

“Once the plastic chair is in the room, I have to simultaneously hold open the heavy door and hoist myself out of the wheelchair, through the doorway, and into the plastic chair. Because the attorney visiting booth is non-contact, my lawyer can do nothing but watch me through the window partition while I do all of this.

“The showers in the unit where I am housed are inaccessible. There is only one grab bar and the shower chair is old, flimsy and on wheels. The first time I showered in the unit was a humiliating experience. I fell out of the shower chair when it rolled and became stuck in the drain. Without adequate supports around me, I had to drag my body across the filthy shower floor and out of the shower back to my wheelchair.

“I can only come out of my cell into the dayroom and watch television. I rarely, if ever, get to go outside, and there is no way for me to do exercises in the unit without assistance, which is not provided. I did not have diabetes when I entered the jail, but I do now, in part because I have no meaningful opportunities for healthy exercise. I feel the way that I have to live, without exercise or physical therapy, is breaking my spirit.”

Plaintiff #6: (In custody, without trial, since 2010) “I have been held in isolation…I am in a single cell and am not permitted to have normal human interactions with other people. I am not allowed to leave my cell for more than thirty minutes each day (and usually much less than that).

“I rarely, if ever, get to go outside. I have not had real exposure to sunlight for years. This has led to health problems. For example, in 2016, I was diagnosed with a Vitamin D deficiency, a condition I understand can be caused or worsened by inadequate exposure to sunlight. My skin became covered in rashes and severely itchy. The condition has kept me awake at night. Jail medical staff have explained to me that the conditions of my confinement make me more vulnerable to this health problem.

“Jail staff have also refused to provide the corrective lenses I need for seeing and reading, even though I have requested this help many times . As a result, I have had problems participating in my court-ordered competency training, which involves reading written materials. I have not received the assistance from jail staff that I need to read and understand my documents.

“While an inmate at the jail, I was assaulted and suffered bad injuries for which I did not receive the medical care I needed…my hand was broken in several places, requiring pins to be surgically placed in my hand to help it heal. But after the surgery, the pins began causing me pain. I submitted several jail medical service requests and verbally requested help…the pins even began to pierce through my skin causing me to bleed. It developed into an open wound. I complained and submitted medical requests for twelve months before I finally received medical attention to address the problem.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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