Several months after the county jails changed their procedure on dealing with liability, some volunteers haven’t returned.
Every week for the last nine years, Rick Longinotti had brought the skills from his organization, Nonviolent Communication Santa Cruz, to the Santa Cruz Main Jail. Through group sessions, he taught inmates not only how to express themselves, but also how to listen to the needs of others and understand how not to take offense when someone doesn’t know how to properly communicate. Inmates told him he was making a difference.
“I got a lot of appreciation for visiting the jail,” says Longinotti, better known as an activist on issues like transportation and water.
Then in February, a volunteer dropped a table on her foot, and although the volunteer never filed charges, jail administrators decided to examine their liability clauses.
“We realized nobody had really, clearly, expressed those boundaries,” says Chief Deputy Steve Carney of the sheriff’s department. “There was a very blurry line as to who was responsible for people’s actions when they came into our jails.”
There was no procedure for who would be responsible if a medical emergency happened, Carney says. Following a little research, jail officials introduced a new, mandatory liability waiver for volunteers entering their facilities in the spring. It states that volunteers are knowingly entering a dangerous area and they are responsible for their own actions.
Carney says most volunteers signed the waiver, but Longinotti decided to end his program, and he wasn’t the only one. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey quickly ordered their volunteers not to sign, ending Catholic programs in county jails, although the local Catholic volunteer coordinator for the jails has declined to comment.
Longinotti says he and a few other volunteers initially signed the waiver, then retracted their participation after giving it a closer look.
When the waiver first came out, Longinotti admits that he didn’t carefully read it and signed quickly. It wasn’t until someone else pointed out some of the specific wording that Longinotti decided to take a second glance, before revoking his signature in September.
The reason Longinotti has such a problem with? It reads:
“I further agree to indemnify, hold harmless and defend the County, its officers, agents, employees, and volunteers from any and all claims, demands, actions, judgments, costs, attorney’s fees and damages of any kind for liability which the County may incur arising out of or in any manner related to the performance of voluntary services.”
Longinotti believes that section could be used to take away all liability from the county, and could potentially open volunteers to lawsuits from outside families if an inmate were to be injured during a program. “Why would they have that if they didn’t intend on using it?” he asks.
Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez, founder and executive director of Barrios Unidos, sometimes visits the jail through his 40-year-old community outreach organization. He signed the waiver, but believes organizations need to collaborate with the county on fleshing out more details on the document, which he says needs “a second look.”
Still, Carney claims the waiver was only written in case a volunteer is the instigator of an incident, intentionally or not.
“We want people to understand they are putting themselves at some level of risk when entering,” he says. “We’re not absolving ourselves from liability in areas that people expect security.”