A settlement has been reached in a federal class-action lawsuit filed alleging dangerous and unconstitutional conditions at the Santa Barbara County Jail, with the agreement calling for providing each inmate with a bed, clean clothes and other improvements.
The 2017 lawsuit was filed on behalf of Clay Martin Burt Murray as lead plaintiff, along with other inmates, and named Santa Barbara County and the Sheriff’s Office as defendants.
The 91-page complaint recounted a litany of physical and operational flaws within to the 50-year-old jail facility, often referred to as “Franken-Jail.”
Modifications made over the years created a facility that was “haphazard, substandard, and riddled with architectural barriers, deficiencies, and limitations,” the complaint claimed.
Inmates, including those with serious health conditions and disabilities, sometimes sleep on the floor, and many, including mentally ill prisoners, were kept in solitary confinement, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said.
The remedial plan, more than 50 pages long, spells out numerous requirements, including that inmates should receive disinfected mattresses, have cells cleaned before a prisoner’s placement, and get fresh clothing and linen at least weekly.
“We have communicated with hundreds of people held in the Santa Barbara County Jail, and have heard again and again that the conditions there are simply intolerable. The design and conditions of this half-century old jail have no place in modern society,” said Aaron Fischer, litigation counsel at Disability Rights California.
“This settlement comes at a moment of critical urgency and great opportunity. The jail’s dangerous conditions are compounded by the tremendous risk that the COVID-19 pandemic poses to our clients.”
“This negotiated settlement represents a milestone in our agency’s delivery of correctional services to those in our custody,” Sheriff Bill Brown said. “It sets the path toward much needed improvements in the processes, programs, and overall environment of the entire Main Jail campus.
“As these measures are implemented, we will be able to provide better correctional services to our incarcerated community members.
“Although our custody professionals have performed admirably for years, they have been hampered in their efforts by limited resources and an obsolete and inefficient jail facility that is more than 50 years old,” he added. “The much-welcomed subject matter expert evaluations and remedial plans that are a part of this agreement will pave the way toward a comprehensive community of care for the entire inmate population.”
Under the settlement, the county agreed to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys $1,132,809 for reasonable fees and expenses.
Additionally, plaintiffs’ attorneys and designated court-appointed experts will monitor implementation of the changes. The agreement sets an annual $125,000 cap for costs and fees for monitoring.
The Murray lawsuit alleged that conditions at the jail do not meet minimum standards under the U.S. Constitution and federal law.
As part of the lawsuit, five nationally recognized experts assessed conditions inside the facility, which was rated to hold 618 inmates but at several points has housed more than 1,000.
The proposed settlement, available here, still must be approved by a federal judge.
The lawsuit alleged that Murray, an Army veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and a wheelchair user, did not receive any meaningful mental health treatment while at the jail.
Furthermore, he was confined in a housing unit inaccessible to people with physical disabilities, so basic activities such as taking a shower put him at risk of injury.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the jail population has been reduced by more than 35 percent.
“Maintaining and further reducing the current jail population — and shrinking the footprint of the county’s jail system — is, without question, the best pathway to cost-effective and successful implementation of the remedial plan,” said Corene Kendrick, staff attorney at the Prison Law Office.
For remedial measures requiring a remodel, reconfiguration, or renovation of the Main Jail, the agreement set a deadline of July 1, 2023.
The lawsuit’s lead plaintiff, now-70-year-old Murray, has since been convicted of first-degree murder for the death of Rebecca Yap, 37, of Santa Maria in 2014.
A Santa Maria Superior Court judge sentenced the Lompoc man to life in prison without the possibility of parole four years after the killing.
Murray is incarcerated at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.