County settles jail lawsuit

Authorities must enact screening, service improvements for inmates

After three years of negotiations, the Prison Law Office, Cooley LLP, and Santa Clara County have reached a settlement in a class action lawsuit alleging that some conditions in the county jails are unconstitutional, county staff reported Oct. 23.

The current settlement in the case Chavez v. County of Santa Clara, which is subject to court approval, binds the county to significant existing and future commitments to improve living conditions for inmates confined in the jail. County staff said the county and sheriff’s office began addressing these conditions more than three years ago.

The settlement results from several years of negotiations between the Prison Law Office, Cooley LLP, and the county regarding the alleged unconstitutional conditions in the jails, county staff said in a press release.

“Although the negotiations were long and difficult, the outcome will result in dramatic improvements to the jails that will help reduce recidivism,” said Donald Spector, executive director of the Prison Law Office. “During this process, Sheriff Laurie Smith and the county demonstrated leadership and complete transparency and dedication to finding solutions that addressed the deficiencies (including the use of force and solitary confinement) and negotiated this deal in good faith.”

The composition of the county’s inmate population, due in large part to the recent realignment that placed more state prisoners in county facilities, has placed additional pressures on the county jails, the county’s press release continues.

“For the last three years, the county has tackled necessary jail reforms in a collaborative, deliberative and transparent fashion resulting in improved conditions for inmates and their families, the staff and our community,” County Counsel James Williams said. “With this settlement complete, the county can now finalize its work on (its) larger efforts on jail reforms.”

Smith added that she has “appreciated the professionalism of the Prison Law Office and Cooley LLP and the opportunity to work cooperatively to find common ground in the parties’ shared goal of providing appropriate conditions for inmates in the county’s custody.”

The Prison Law Office and experts will monitor the county’s implementation efforts to ensure compliance.  

Key points of the settlement agreement include:

• For all inmates, the county will make several modifications to the intake and booking process to better identify, monitor and address inmates’ medical, dental and mental health conditions as well as non-mobility and cognitive disabilities.

• For all inmates, the county will improve the delivery of medical, dental and mental health care while in custody through reduced wait times to be seen for health care concerns; revisions to the referral systems; and changes to the medication distribution and verification processes.

• For inmates with serious mental illnesses and cognitive disabilities, the county will make system-wide changes to the screening, classification, housing and management needs unique to these inmates.

• For inmates at risk of suicide, the county will make additional efforts at suicide prevention through revised triage and screening processes for evaluating inmates with suicidal behaviors, installation of suicide-resistant cells and changes to the way the jail supervises inmates at risk of suicide.

• For inmates with dental needs, the county will improve wait times and expand services to inmates incarcerated for longer periods.

• For inmates with vision, hearing and speech disabilities, the county will improve its identification and verification processes as well as its issuance, retention and provision of assistive devices; accommodate these inmates in improved housing; provide for effective communication and programmatic access; and track accommodations provided to these inmates.    

• For inmates who engage in violence and, therefore, whose contact with inmates and staff must be reduced for the safety and security of the institution, the county will use a new, innovative phased approach, developed in consultation with experts, to house these inmates in what will be known as administrative management. This new approach will include specific admittance criteria and a high-level review for inmates who are retained for longer periods of time; notice to inmates regarding their placement; improved conditions on these units in the form of greater out-of-cell time and more meaningful out-of-cell opportunities; and an opportunity for inmates to demonstrate good behavior and return to a lesser restrictive setting.

• The sheriff’s office has developed a new use of force policy and implemented extensive training to correctional staff on the policy as well as de-escalation and conflict resolution training.

The federal court is scheduled to decide whether to grant preliminary approval to the settlement before the end of this year.