Lawyers Say Decision Will Go Long Way to Ending ‘Dangerous and Inhumane’ Conditions
By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – Just a few days after Christmas, a federal court judge here confirmed the class action status of a massive lawsuit against Sacramento County jails, which will go a long way to ending “dangerous and inhumane” conditions at the facilities, according to a statement from plaintiffs’ lawyers to the Davis Vanguard.
The lawsuit, filed July 31 of 2018, charged the long-troubled jails with “unconstitutional and illegal treatment” of about 3,800 men and women. The lawsuit followed a breakdown of a several-year negotiation with the County of Sacramento.
“It is an important and positive step that the court has found that the case should proceed as a class action. The dangerous and inhumane conditions in Sacramento County’s jails put every single person incarcerated there at risk of harm, most of all people with disabilities, mental health needs, and serious medical needs,” said Aaron J. Fischer, litigation counsel for Disability Rights California Bay Area Regional Office.
In fact, the decision by the courts came after a mid-December tour of the county jails with defense and plaintiff lawyers, representatives of the Board of Supervisors and a federal magistrate judge.
“Every time we tour the jail and meet with our clients, we see people suffering without the treatment and services they need. Problems like severe understaffing, reliance on extreme solitary confinement, and unsafe, inaccessible facilities are not new, and they have been ignored for far too long. A remedy for these deficiencies will not be simple or cheap. But the constitutional rights of prisoners at the jail are being violated every day, and that cannot be ignored,” added Fischer.
There is a status conference between the parties Jan. 17, but plaintiffs are becoming more impatient. And, in court filings, Fischer and other co-counsel said conditions are so bad at the jail that they plan to ask for an injunction to protect prisoners.
“There is considerable urgency to secure relief for Plaintiffs and putative class and subclass members, who face significant risk of harm at the Jail due to the serious and longstanding legal and constitutional violations. Nearly all of the identified deficiencies at Sacramento County Jail…persist. While Plaintiffs remain open to a settlement that provides a meaningful and durable remedy, Plaintiffs cannot simply wait for the outcome of any future uncertain-at-best negotiations,” according to the filings.
Added Fischer, “We are hopeful that the County will commit to a timely resolution, and we are also prepared to fight aggressively in court to vindicate our clients’ rights.”
Declarations by Sacramento County Jail inmates/plaintiffs – some have been incarcerated while awaiting trial for years – are detailed and horrific, including declarations stating that 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.
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.
The federal filing notes that 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 Fischer. “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.