Sac County Settles Massive Jail Lawsuit – Promises Millions, and Staff Improvements

Covered windows in solitary confinement cell area at Sacramento County Jail

By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – The lengthy consent decree – hundreds of pages, nearly dwarfing “The Mueller Report” – settling a massive federal civil rights lawsuit against Sacramento County jails was made public Thursday, outlining tens of millions of dollars in county spending to make the facilities more humane.

Although the County has promised the funding for “improvements,” throwing money at the problem jails – once described by famed anti-war activist and oft-jailed Cindy Sheehan the “worst” she’s ever seen in all her years of arrests – is not necessarily the answer, as noted by at least one of the plaintiff lawyers.

“Ultimately, the County must reduce the jail population in order to end the conditions that lead to needless deterioration of the mental and physical health of people in the jail,” said Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, of Disability Rights California, which filed the suit along with the Prison Law Office and Cooley LLP in July of 2018 on behalf of six prisoners and all inmates forward.

The County “will fail to meet the needs of people in Sacramento if it simply pours money into the jail. It must invest in community services and programs designed to prevent recidivism and reduce the need to incarcerate people who are homeless or have serious mental illness,” she warned.

Apart from the very real inhumane conditions of the jails, lawyers and others who observe or visit the downtown jail regularly will confide that it’s a facility that suffers – and this was not pointed out in the settlement – with an “attitude problem.”

Deputies, say observers, will run rough-shod over defense counsel and other visitors if they have the desire to do so.

Money, as Ressl-Moyer suggests, won’t solve all the problems.

Declarations by Sacramento County Jail inmates/plaintiffs – some have been incarcerated while awaiting trial for years – are detailed and horrific, including declarations describing 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 and are just housed in deplorable conditions awaiting a trial date.

Experts who have investigated the conditions at the Sacramento County Jail for a decade or more said the conditions do not “meet constitutional standards” and identified “serious violations” of the rights of people with disabilities, according the claims in the lawsuit.

Inhumane conditions at Sacramento County Jail

The federal pleading by the plaintiffs 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.

The lawsuit 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.

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) to 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, according to the lawsuit.

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 lawsuit alleged that County regularly subjects people in its custody to harsh, prolonged, and undue isolation…hundreds locked up every day in solitary confinement in dark, cramped, filthy cells for 23 ½ hours or more per day…deprived of any human contact, programming, fresh air, and sunlight. Many don’t 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 claimed, noting that at least five people died by suicide in the last two years, and hundreds of others became suicidal during that time.

The Consent Decree projects big changes, at least in the physical failures of the jail, including mental health services, staff and other practices. A copy of the proposed Consent Decree is available at

“We have spent over four years investigating and litigating over Sacramento County’s persistent failure to meet the basic human needs of people in their jails,” said Ressl-Moyer. “Our clients have done a courageous job in fighting for their constitutional rights.”

“We believe the settlement…will result in dramatic improvements and is in the best interest of our clients. It calls for the County to end the dangerous use of ‘Total Separation’ for people in jail and to significantly reduce the use of solitary confinement. The settlement also requires the county to expand program activities and take additional measures to prevent suicide,” said Jessica Valenzuela Santamaria, a partner at Cooley, in a prepared statement.

The agreement calls for a “substantial expansion in mental health programming and services for people incarcerated in Sacramento County jails. Under the agreement, we will monitor the implementation of these reforms to ensure that the County provides adequate mental health and medical care to the people it incarcerates,” said Margot Mendelson, staff attorney at the Prison Law Office.

The proposed consent decree will also commit the County to consider measures to reduce the jail population and to “prevent the unnecessary incarceration of individuals with serious mental illness.”

The County has agreed that a “reduction in the jail population is a cost-effective means to achieve constitutional and statutory standards.”

That said, it appears the County is planning to expand their facilities – not reduce them – with about $21 million planned in upgrades for the downtown jail, and another nearly $90 million to expand the South Sacramento County Jail. Much of the new monies will increase staffing.

The promised changes in the consent decree – it’s a long list and these are just a few of the promises – include:

  1. The guarantee that Disability Rights California and other assigned groups can monitor the jail three or more times a year.
  2. The County agrees to publicly disclose the number of people in the jail with mental disorders, how long they stay, if they are offered services, the number of people receiving mental health services at the time of booking and the number of sentenced and unsentenced inmates in custody, sentenced people in the jail, the nature of the commitment, convictions, length of sentence(s), and level of mental healthcare and for unsentenced people in the jail, the nature of the charges, length of pre-trial detention, and level of mental health care.
  3. Inmates will be screened for mental and physical healthcare concerns, suicide risks.
  4. Healthcare will be improved, including dental, medical and mental health – and providing healthcare appliances, like hearing aids, wheelchairs, eyeglasses, on a timely basis.
  5. Educate staff about the Americans with Disabilities Act provisions, re-examine the use of force policy, and work with mental health professional regarding the handling of those inmates with mental health issues and other disabilities.

The County has about six months to provide a plan on how they will “repair” the jails to comply with the consent decree and all its conditions.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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    1. Eric Gelber

      Not a surprise that it settled. What is disturbing, if not surprising, is that the County tolerated such deplorable and shameful conditions, and resisted settling, for so long—well before the lawsuit was even initiated.

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