A federal class-action lawsuit claims the Santa Barbara County Jail fails to provide basic mental-health and medical care, misuses solitary confinement, discriminates against people with disabilities, and provides “inhumane, unsanitary, and unsafe living conditions.”
“This is a system with critical deficiencies that have not been addressed for too long,” said Aaron Fischer, litigation counsel at Disability Rights California. “These issues put people with disabilities at risk of harm every day.”
The 91-page complaint recounts a litany of physical and operational flaws due to the 50-year-old jail facility often referred to as “Franken-Jail.
Modifications made over the years created a facility that is “haphazard, substandard, and riddled with architectural barriers, deficiencies, and limitations,” the complaint claims.
Inmates, including those with serious health conditions and disabilities, sleep on the floor, and many, including mentally ill inmates, are kept in solitary confinement, the plaintiffs’ attorneys say.
Suicide attempts are common among those in solitary-confinement settings, the complaints said, with 12 prisoners attempting suicide in a 5-month period. One man died.
The jail is designed to house approximately 818 people, but its population typically exceeds 1,100, or 120 percent of the capacity.
“Defendants have been deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk of pain and suffering and harm to prisoners, including serious injury, clinical deterioration, and death, caused by their inadequate, unlawful, and unconstitutional policies and practices,” the complaints said.
Sheriff Bill Brown noted the county has made efforts to improve conditions for inmates.
“The Sheriff’s Office takes seriously the treatment of all inmates in our custody, especially the most vulnerable,” Brown said in a written statement. “We take these allegations seriously and remain committed to the proper care and treatment of those under our watch.”
Many of these deficiencies have been cited through the years in Santa Barbara County Grand Jury reports.
To ease overcrowding, the county’s new Northern Branch Jail is under construction at the corner of Betteravia and Black roads near Santa Maria, with opening scheduled for 2019. Brown presided over the groundbreaking ceremony last fall.
But the inmates’ attorneys say some of the problems won’t go away once the new jail opens since the county plans to continue to use the existing jail facility.
“This is a county jail that has clearly been dealing with overcrowding, insufficient staffing, and crumbling infrastructure for years,” said Joshua Toll, pro bono partner at King & Spalding, “and it is our hope that this case will lead to significant reforms.”
The inmates allege jail conditions violate their constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment.
They also allege violations of the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids restricting the basic rights of citizens or other persons.
Other flaws cited in the civil lawsuit include a severe shortage of correctional deputies.
Also, the lawsuit criticized the policy of punishing prisoners by serving them a “disciplinary diet” described as “a tasteless and disgusting ‘meatloaf’ with two slices of bread served twice daily
“Serving this sort of disciplinary diet as punishment is banned in many jail and prison systems,” the complaint said.
Conditions for disabled inmates violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, the claim said, noting Murray, who uses a wheelchair, can’t easily access rooms for confidential meetings with his attorney.
The complaint asks a judge to order county jail staff to immediately provide adequate medical and mental-health care, including sufficient intake screening, timely access to appropriate clinicians, timely prescription and distribution of appropriate medications and supplies, timely access to specialty care, and timely access to adequate therapy, inpatient treatment, and suicide prevention.
Additionally, the lawsuit seeks equal access to programs, services and activities for people with disabilities. Because of where they are housed in the jail, many with disabilities miss out on programs other inmates can access, the inmates attorneys said.
Santa Barbara County Public Defender Tracy Macuga said her office supports efforts seeking to improve inmate health care and living conditions.
“As defenders of the public, our attorneys and staff will continue vigorously fighting to protect and restore clients’ lives, including advocating for the humane treatment of those in our local jail,” the Public Defender’s Office said in response the lawsuit.
Santa Barbara County is expected to file a response within 60 days.