State Supreme Court Asked to Intervene on Behalf of Inmates in Sacramento County Jails

By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO – The Sacramento County Public Defender Office filed a nearly 400-page pleading document June 29 – made available exclusively to THE VANGUARD Thursday night – that asks the Supreme Court of California to intervene on behalf of inmates at Sacramento County’s two jails, and “order the Sheriff to engage in life-saving measures” to prevent inmates’ death from Novel Coronavirus.

Addressed to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the “Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus or Writ of Mandate” was filed on behalf of Tamera Marshall and other inmates at the jails, bolstered by dozens of declarations by individual Assistant Public Defenders and more than 100 supporting declarations by medical and health expert, and community supporters.

“This Court should order the Sheriff and Respondents to show cause why petitioners are denied essential humane living conditions and medical care,” the pleading reads, requesting the Supreme Court to “institute a population cap at the jails which allows for social distancing,” and ensuring the Sheriff Scott Jones maintain “conditions of sanitation and hygiene in compliance with standards appropriate to the COVID-19 crisis.”

Specifically, the filing begs the court to “require the Sheriff to abide by medical standards in ensuring inmates have access to masks and other PPE’s…Because the Sheriff and Respondents have abdicated their responsibility to provide constitutionally mandated conditions of confinement for inmates in the Sacramento County jails.”

The pleading names Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, the Superior Court of Sacramento County as respondents, and the People of the State of California as a real party in interest.

The CA Supreme Court has requested the State Attorney General and the Sacramento County District Attorney submit preliminary opposition on the merits of the new petition.

County Public Defender Steven M. Garrett, and Assistant Public Defender John Wesley Haw Stoller are named as attorneys for the petitioners/inmates.

Essentially, this is a case the Public Defender has argued since March 20, more than three months ago, maintaining that the jails’ condition were ripe for attack by COVID-19 – as has happened in other prisons and jails around the country – and that the Sheriff and County should do something before a virus outbreak “destabilize(s)” the Sacramento community.

“Since March 20, 2020, the Public Defender has moved, petitioned, and pleaded with Sacramento Superior Court to hold a hearing to examine the conditions of confinement in the Sacramento County Jail System and issue orders to reduce the number of confined persons.

”But the superior court has refused to act and the jail system remains a tinderbox risking not only Petitioners’ lives, but the lives of law enforcement, medical personnel, jail staff, attorneys, court personnel, and the community at large. Continued inaction threatens to destabilize emergency medical infrastructure across the community,” the pleading argues.

The PD has urged the jails to reduce the population to allow for single-cell occupancy during the pandemic to allow for social distancing, as supported by epidemiologists, and noted that “the conditions of confinement in the local jail system impermissibly and unconstitutionally increase a confined person’s risk of contracting a life-threatening virus.”

The pleading points out that California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation studies show that the infection rate of confined persons is about 3.5 times higher than general population, adding the “penal system disproportionately confines and punishes persons of color, the virus disproportionately infects and kills them.”

The Public Defender said it has “continuously” sought a hearing, but criticizes Sacramento Superior Court, which it claims, “has refused to hold such a hearing…abdicating its responsibility to enforce Due Process of law and protect accused and convicted.”

“(T)he state has sanctioned incarceration that, along with all of the other attendant ills, puts confined persons in daily fear for their health and lives,” the Public Defender charges, noting the “the lower court’s inaction,” and asks the state Supreme Court to set a hearing to “correct the unconstitutional conditions of confinement and to evaluate the release of confined persons in the Sacramento County jail system.”

“In the midst of a deadly pandemic, this Court must order the Sheriff to engage in life-saving measures. Courts have a duty to protect the constitutional rights of institutionalized persons where the conditions of confinement make the risk of contracting a life-threatening disease a certainty,” the pleading urges the state’s highest court.

And, specifically, the Public Defender asks that the court “order the Sheriff to engage in the following protocols: Maintain a population cap of 1,800 inmates; Petitioners shall be screened for symptoms of COVID-19 on a daily basis. If a Petitioner shows any signs or symptoms of COVID-19, a COVID-19 test kit shall be administered within 24 hours.”

The jails hold about 4,000 people normally, and the population – through a combination of actions largely mandated by the state like “zero bail” for misdemeanors and some felonies, and the Public Defender’s efforts – is now closer to 2,600 or so.

Other demands include social distancing of at least six feet between inmates in the jails or transport, incarcerated must be provided hygiene items, to include at a minimum: tissues, hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol, disinfecting wipes, soap, disposable latex gloves and face masks. And, all areas must be cleaned and disinfect, including cells that must be disinfected at least once every 24 hours and inmates’ “clothing, linens, towels and any other porous items they contact shall be cleaned and disinfected daily. Petitioners shall be permitted to wash their hands regularly and thoroughly with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.”

“When the State confines people against their will, the Constitution imposes upon it a duty to assume responsibility for the inmates’ safety and well-being. For pretrial detainees, confinement conditions are an issue of due process of law,” the pleading argues.

“Where those conditions convert to punishment, the state violates the constitution’s prohibition against punishment without due process. For convicted persons, the confinement conditions may become so onerous that they violate the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment,” wrote the Public Defender.

Among the failures listed by the Public Defender’s pleading were the “Conditions of Confinement Subject Inmates to Substantial Harm and Violate the Eighth Amendment,” the “Sacramento County Jail System has Failed to Provide Adequate Medical Care to those in its Charge,” pretrial detention in a jail “Unable to Ensure Minimum Precautions against COVID-19 Converts Detention into Punishment, and “Bail Set in Amounts Petitioners Cannot Afford Violate their Right to Reasonable Bail, Due Process, and Equal Protection.”

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About The Author

Veteran news reporter and editor, including stints at the Sacramento Bee, Woodland Democrat, and Vietnam war correspondent and wire service bureau chief at the State Capitol.

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