Solitary Confinement Punishes Vulnerable People Inside a San Mateo County Jail

By James Anderson

This article is published in partnership with Solitary Watch and the Kansas City Defender.

Maguire Correctional Facility lies just a few blocks from San Francisco Bay, and serves as the main jail for San Mateo County. A largely affluent suburban area that connects the city of San Francisco to the north and famed Silicon Valley towns like Palo Alto to the south, San Mateo County hosts the headquarters of Facebook, and the median price of a home is about $1.5 million. Last year, the county broke ground on a new $50 million “modernized, state-of-the-art headquarters” for the Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the county’s jails.

But at Maguire, located in downtown Redwood City, California, life is mostly rough, squalid, and for many, extremely isolated. According to many incarcerated sources, forms of solitary confinement like administrative segregation (ad-seg) are causing serious harm to people, often the most vulnerable, and frequently for extended periods of time. These problems continue even as advocates appear to be making progress in working with San Mateo County and the office of Sheriff Christina Corpus.

Shikeb Saddozai, who’s currently incarcerated inside San Quentin State Prison, recalls spending about two years total in administrative segregation at Maguire. On most days, he got 30 minutes out-of-cell time to use the phone and shower and otherwise engage in recreation, but that half-hour was never guaranteed; on Tuesdays, according to Saddozai, he typically only got 10 minutes.

In a complaint he sent to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, Saddozai wrote that, circa October 2022, he wasn’t given phone or tablet access, wasn’t allowed to watch TV, wasn’t permitted social interaction, and was left “to suffer being isolated to solitary confinement exceeding twenty three and a half (23 ½) hour lockdown,” while select detainees got to spend appreciably more time outside of their cells.

Others in segregated confinement have had limited tablet access too, which in Maguire can mean being denied the right to communicate with the outside world, which the Geneva Convention affirms for incarcerated persons.That’s because, like a growing number of prisons and jails, Maguire demands that all mail be addressed to a private company in Florida, Smart Communications, which scans and digitizes it. Incarcerated persons can then only access their mail via electronic tablets.

Individuals placed in ad-seg at Maguire have, like Saddozai, endured treatment and conditions harmful to both mental and physical health.

In a pro-se lawsuit filed in February 2022 that was eventually dismissed, a complainant, formerly detained in the jail, claimed to have been assaulted by staff and denied medical care and food. The author of the suit recalled being placed in a “sobering cell” where an officer, per the claim, put the incarcerated person’s “face into fecal matter and urine” in a putatively COVID-19 contaminated area. Later, the complainant was placed in “a dirty cell and denied cleaning materials and left with a molded, soiled and mildewed mattress” that resulted in a staph infection, according to the lawsuit. Allegedly called an “aggressive homosexual” by an officer, the complainant claimed to have been written up in January 2022 for talking to the pod about filing grievances to get the state-mandated three hours of out-of-cell time every day as opposed to the 10 minutes the suit claims the complainant received.

“Unfortunately,” the individual wrote in the suit, “being an egalitarian has caused me innumerable write-ups.”

The suit alleged officers falsified information, keeping the complainant from placement in the jail’s general population.

“My mental health is deteriorating as I am paranoid and hear voices and wake up from nightmares in cold sweats, afraid of the officers,” the complainant explained. “I am not eligible for classes, work or programs. I am denied law library access, legal calls and only 30 minutes per day—sometimes no recreation, and only 10 minutes every other day when they send me to disciplinary segregation.”

A Documented History of Ad-Seg Exacerbating Mental Illness in Maguire

Advocates with the Prison Law Office (PLO) and Disability Rights California (DRC) who visited Maguire last November highlighted similar problems with segregated confinement, which they documented in a 17-page letter sent to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office in late January 2023 and then published online.

They defined segregated confinement “as circumstances in which a person is confined in their cell, alone or with others, for a substantially longer period of time each day than those in general population,” irrespective of the reason for placement in the unit and no matter the number of days spent there—though both those matters were also raised in the letter and both remain of issue to sources inside the jail.

The letter to the county raised alarm about “the extreme overuse of segregation for people with mental illness, the lack of adequate and appropriate services in less restrictive settings, the filthy and unsafe conditions of segregation cells, the lack of clear policies and criteria for placement in these cells and transfer out of them, the extraordinarily limited out-of-cell time, and the long durations of segregation, which in some cases exceeded one year.” Per the PLO and DRC, those practices violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“They remain in segregation for months and even years at a time, with no upper limit on how long they can remain and no instruction on what they can do to get out,” advocates wrote about some 87 individuals placed in segregation, close to one-fifth of Maguire’s prisoner population at the time. Nationally, the number of people in jail who are held in solitary confinement is approximately 5.6 percent—four times lower than in Maguire.

The PLO and DRC expressed added concern for the most vulnerable. “People with disabilities languish in cells that are often filthy and unhygienic, experiencing little to no meaningful out-of-cell time or human interaction, and with few activities to relieve their sensory deprivation. Such conditions clearly exacerbate mental illness and risk decompensation. This extraordinary, pervasive misuse of segregation means the County is not only failing to provide treatment for people experiencing mental health crises; it is affirmatively making them worse.”

Henry Bytof, who would later this year be transferred to the nearby Maple Street Correctional Center, said that upon moving into his cell in 3West at Maguire in early 2023, he saw a picture of Santa Claus riding an enormous penis drawn on the back wall, which for him illustrated the undertreated and mistreated mental conditions of guys there.

“It’s worsening their mental state by being over there,” Bytof said, echoing the conclusions of the PLO and DRC. “I guarantee you that.”

He said mental health staff would do checks every Tuesday—once per week, in line with the minimum recommended in the letter—but they would only speak to people in ad-seg for about two minutes, and if someone was having issues, staff would tell that person to put in a medical request.

Bytof further echoed what the PLO and DRC investigation found regarding how individuals with mental illness are treated.

“The people who have mental health issues, they put them in a Ferguson gown, which is a suicide gown,” he said. “They’re not even suicidal.”

Those individuals were put in the anti-suicide smocks and thrown in cells with no stimuli when he was there, Bytof added. He’s also not the only incarcerated source to comment that in parts of Maguire with segregated housing, bare cement and windows painted gray keep people from seeing outside.

The DRC and PLO letter also recommended that San Mateo County increase its capacity to care for incarcerated people with mental health concerns in settings less restrictive than ad-seg and told the county those with mental and physical disabilities, people with other serious medical conditions and individuals under age 25 or over age 60 should never be put in segregation.

The authors wrote that ad-seg should only be used in response to serious violence and ought to be limited to 15 consecutive days at most, in accord with international standards. People put in segregation, the letter states, should also “have fair and meaningful opportunities to contest the placement, including the right to an initial hearing within 72 hours and process protections at that hearing.”

Suffering in Segregation Continued After a DRC/PLO Investigation

Testimony from sources incarcerated inside the jail suggest the office of Sheriff Corpus, elected to her position in June 2022, did not immediately move to make changes based on the DRC/PLO recommendations.

From inside Maguire, Watson Opeti mentioned that back in January he observed people with mental health issues endure unfair treatment, and that’s not all.

“They’re living in their own feces,” he said.

Lack of out-of-cell time compounded and might still compound those unhygienic conditions.

Bytof said that when he was in ad-seg at Maguire in February, inside the 3West C-side segregated unit reserved for disciplinary detention, 10 minutes of out-of-cell time every other day was the norm, despite Title 15 state standards that require jails in California to offer a minimum of three hours of exercise each week.

Individuals housed there, at the time at least, did not get sunlight exposure because they did not get to use the caged recreation yard outside. The only book they could have was a bible, Bytof added.

In the past, the temperament of officers in the jail has led to individuals ending up in segregation, and CO tempers have made life there more deleterious to people’s health, sources attest.

According to his version of events, when Bytof asked to be moved out of a space shared with other guys in gen-pop so his snoring problem would not bother them, officers ignored the request.

“So at rec time, I go upstairs and I talk to my wife on the phone,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Babe, you might not hear from me for a couple of days because I’m about to refuse to lock it up, so I don’t go back in that tank and get into a fight and cause issues with my snoring.’”

The warning he gave to his partner proved warranted. Bytof said he refused to return to the “tank” after recreation ended, and he told an officer to get his Sergeant since he wasn’t going to be moved back into that cell he shared with others where he would likely get in a fight. The officer berated him like he was a child, he said.

Bytof responded with an expletive—“You know, man, fuck you,” or something to that effect—and ended up in C-Side for 12 days for that, he said, starting at the end of January.

Anthony Webb, who spent time in Maguire before being moved to Maple Street, told Solitary Watch he witnessed officers in the former jail “stirring up” emotions.

“I have seen Sergeants throw away grievances in the trash can in front of inmates,” Webb wrote.

From inside Maguire, Vincente Hernandez explained that a number of guys go to segregation because they argue with officers, but he estimated that about 90 percent of those incidents are provoked by COs.

Hernandez ended up in ad-seg after he got into a fight with two individuals in October 2022, per his account. As of July 8, he said he remained in segregation.

What he claims to have witnessed there illustrates another way in which segregated confinement worsens already deteriorating mental capacities.

When the sister of an older incarcerated man visited the jail once, Hernandez recalled, a correctional officer came to let the man know about the visitor. The CO got frustrated with the older man for mumbling and then declared that the man was refusing the visit.

“I yelled out that it was fucked up of him to do that,” Hernandez shared. “[He] never got his visits, that old man.”

San Mateo County Acknowledges—Yet Fails to Quickly Address—Myriad Problems

Earlier this year, however, San Mateo County at least formally agreed to heed some of the PLO/DRC recommendations.

Prior to a meeting with advocates, county attorney John Nibellin and deputy county attorney Tara Heumann sent a response letter to the PLO and DRC on March 23. They wrote that the county agreed “that administrative and disciplinary housing should be used for short periods of time and only as necessary for safety and security,” they acknowledged a willingness to commit to not placing people in “disciplinary housing for behaviors that are a manifestation of their disabilities,” and they agreed to adopting a policy that doesn’t place people with disabilities or other vulnerable populations in segregation “unless they pose a risk of imminent violence, or there are other exceptional, articulable, objective circumstances.”

The letter did not define those circumstances, nor did it explain how officers would determine who poses “a risk of imminent violence,” leaving potential policy changes open to interpretation.

Bytof said that “without a doubt” custody continues to place people in ad-seg because of their mental health disorders, if those individuals risk interfering with the ease of operation of the jail; he stressed that “the umbrella they hide under is safety and security for the facility.”

The broad “safety and security” justification remains baked into the “Inmate Handbook and Orientation” document from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office Corrections Procedure Manual, which the county produced in response to a public records request.

According to that document, ad-seg entails “physical separation of an inmate” who might encourage “activity or behavior that is criminal in nature or disruptive to facility operations,” who shows “influence over other inmates”—which could include influence that’s “disruptive to the safety and security of other inmates or facility staff, as well as to the safe operation of the facility”—who could be prone to escape, who’s inclined to assault or conspire to assault others or who’s in need protection from other incarcerated persons.

Advocates Outline Next Steps

Public records reveal that the PLO and DRC sent another letter, a nine-page document with the subject line, “Next Steps for San Mateo County Regarding its Use of Solitary Confinement and Mental Health System,” to the county on May 8.

The letter includes recommendations and resources that the county has considered, but in a number of cases, has yet to implement.

The PLO and DRC cited San Bernardino jail policy providing for review of repeated confinement in disciplinary detention by a multidisciplinary committee. It’s unclear whether San Mateo has opted yet to use such a committee.

The attorney assigned to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, David Silberman, wrote via email in response to inquiries about segregation inside Maguire that the Sheriff’s Office continues “to work collaboratively and productively with the DRC/PLO to address the questions they have raised,” but given the “ongoing and dynamic” process, the office would not be commenting further.

“But know that the Sheriff’s Office does, has and will work to minimize use of restrictive housing when we can,” Silberman shared.

Beyond the list of mental health diagnoses the county acknowledged ought to preclude segregation, the PLO and DRC noted in the May letter that other conditions and disabilities should be considered before anyone is moved to segregated housing. The letter authors noted that anyone who exhibits unusual behavior while in solitary should immediately be removed.

The persistent surfeit of human excrement observed and the incessant screams heard by multiple sources with recent ad-seg experience suggest the county has room to act on that recommendation.

According to the DRC/PLO letter, San Mateo could adopt multiphase administrative housing programs, like one in Sacramento, which features two phases. A more restrictive Phase I, limited to 15 days, allows for one hour of out-of-cell time per day, with five of those seven hours each week including the chance to participate in activities. A less restrictive Phase II, limited to 30 days, allows for at least 17 hours of out-of-cell time each week, 10 of which have to afford opportunity for engaging in activities.

Confounding matters in Maguire, sources suggest out-of-cell conditions remain similar to and perhaps a product of ongoing ad-seg policies.

In the outside IRA, or “INMATE RECREATION AREA,” there are four cages, each with a phone and typically a chair, explained Omar Meza, who said he was in ad-seg at the jail as of early August.

“Cage four is the only cage that has a sink,” he wrote in a message on August 4. “There’s no bathroom so at times people piss and shit in the cages.”

Meza recalled cleaning urine and feces from cells several times when he held a pod worker position in 3West for about two years.

The unsanitary conditions and the inadequate medical and mental health care sort of go hand in hand and negatively reinforce each other, Meza made clear.

“At times some of these guys that come in mentally incapable of fending for themselves don’t even receive something as simple as a blanket, clothing, or mattress for several days,” Meza wrote.

Recommended time limits on segregation have thus far not resulted in men who have been in ad-seg for months being moved, per multiple sources inside.

Meza shared during the summer that he had spent more than three years total in administrative housing at Maguire, and he had been given no indication as to when he might get out.

Similarly, John Demetrescu told Solitary Watch that, after he got into a fight with a cellmate on 5 East in early September 2022, he refused to provide officers who interviewed him information involving other persons, and so they took him to 4 East, which was then ad-seg overflow housing and a protected custody intake pod. He should have been returned to the jail’s general population, he believes, but officers indicated they would keep him there indefinitely, without any explicit or legitimate reason—a fate endured, he claimed, by at least several other men he knows who refused to give sensitive information to officers.

“I have [tried] everything I possibly can from letters to grievances to hunger strikes but nothing works,” Demetrescu wrote in July, before outside intervention encouraged staff to rethink his situation. In early August, Demetrescu contacted the ACLU and someone from that organization called the jail, which resulted in him being reclassified, returned to gen-pop and given visits and commissary again, he explained.

From inside 6West in Maguire in early August, Tyler Ehrman said that since December 2022 he’s been kept in a kind of solitary confinement. He couldn’t be housed with some individuals for his safety, and he asked for staff to place him with others where there wouldn’t be safety concerns.

“So they feel the accommodation is me being single-cell, stuck in here by myself,” he said about his indefinite detention.

Ehrman said he gets about 30 minutes out-of-cell time each day, but oftentimes not.

Multiple sources inside told Solitary Watch that widespread lockdowns throughout the jail occur on a regular basis, creating de facto segregation-like circumstances that keep guys in their cells. For someone in Ehrman’s situation, though, routine restrictions of that sort worsen the severity of isolation.

“A lot of times, almost every weekend, no one comes out—no one downstairs, no one upstairs, at all,” he said, citing supposed staffing issues that do not seem to interfere with other processes.

Hernandez believes there are people in segregation in the jail who have been there at least three years, maybe longer, and he added many of those still there have mental disabilities. He too has seen feces smeared on walls—and consumed.

As he explained it, if someone did not suffer from serious mental illness prior to experiencing ad-seg in Maguire, the person likely would after spending time there. The “treatment we get here DEFINITELY makes us worse,” Hernandez, who lamented becoming “more aggressive,” and less sociable when actually given the opportunity to be.

Calls for Decarceration and Outside Pressure

Records available online and provided by the county show that advocates have continued to encourage decarceration as a necessary, hitherto underutilized measure to reduce reliance on segregation inside Maguire.

“We were encouraged by our prior meeting with Sheriff Corpus that San Mateo is considering alternatives to incarceration, particularly for individuals living with mental health disabilities,” the PLO and DRC advocates wrote in their May letter.

They referenced recommendations for reducing the jail population of Santa Clara that James Austin, PhD, prepared at their request. Austin recommended a “stress test” that would involve the Sheriff’s Office and other stakeholders reviewing files of incarcerated persons to identify opportunities for quicker release (or transfer), and he advised formation of a “jail population review panel” to regularly assess whether incarcerated individuals who meet specific criteria should be released.

The PLO and DRC also cited a Sacramento County Jail study, published in May 2022, which outlines jail population reduction strategies like jail diversion via community-based services and management of cases as well as expansion of pretrial public defender support.

Other recommendations include use of intervention response teams made up of peers and mental health professionals to minimize deployment of law enforcement in response to crises in San Mateo County, in addition to the establishment of pre-trial diversion and point-of-arrest programs affording options like community-rooted treatment and services in lieu of jail time.

From inside the Maple Street jail, Bytof said that since so many in the affluent Bay Area county appear more concerned with protecting their money than people, pressure from elsewhere could prove pivotal.

“You need to go outside this county because these citizens just care about their fucking [wealth],” he said in regards to residents with a preponderance of influence, adding: “If you try to push it in this county, they’re gonna just be like, ‘Man, fuck you.’’”

James Anderson is from Illinois but now resides in Riverside, California. He has taught college courses as an adjunct professor and has freelanced for a number of outlets. He’s a member of the IWW Freelance Journalists Union. You can read more of his work at waywards.substack.com.

About The Author

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.

Related posts

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for