Recent inmate death reignites concerns about county jail system
When a Watsonville woman died of cardiac arrhythmia in early November in Santa Cruz County Main Jail, people took notice.
The county jail system had already found itself at the center of controversy when the county Grand Jury released a report in May of last year criticizing the protocol and conditions that surrounded five inmate deaths. Criticism intensified when Sharyon Gibbs, a 65-year-old woman who had heart disease, was found dead in her cell—bringing the total jail deaths to six in two-and-a-half years.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart, who has been on the job for less than a month, says his department has already made changes to improve conditions, and will continue to explore ways to foster a safe environment.
“I don’t see any pattern to the six deaths we’ve had at the jail since 2012,” says Hart, who believes each case should be assessed individually. “We take each death seriously, we examine officer conduct, medical conduct, level of service according to our quality assurance program.”
Hart, whose department oversees both Santa Cruz County Main Jail and the Rountree Facility in Watsonville, says that despite the assertions of the Grand Jury, the county is not a total statistical aberration. According to Hart, Fresno County witnessed 23 in-custody deaths over the same time frame, Los Angeles had 27, Shasta County, which has 90,000 fewer people, had four, and Sonoma County had six.
Still, community groups and at least one defense lawyer assert the changes have been insufficient, and the jail remains overcrowded, with a lack of appropriate medical services.
“The jail is overcrowded, it’s strapped for funds and it has an outside medical provider that does not do the most thorough job,” says Santa Cruz-based defense attorney Jonathan Gettleman.
Gettleman is representing a prisoner who says he was forcibly run into a metal bunk by an angry guard, leaving his head cut up and bloody. The prisoner chooses to remain anonymous for legal reasons, but he tells GT he went for days without follow-up medical care, and eventually had an infection so bad that his head swelled up. He also had to have a sizable paint chip removed from the wound that was hastily stapled shut before it receded.
“My head swelled up so bad and I asked them to go to a doctor multiple times, but they say it was not excessive enough for medical attention,” the inmate told GT at the Rountree men’s facility, which is slated for a $25 million expansion.
Gettleman says he believed the incident proves the widespread cultural problems inside the jail, which he says stem from two primary factors. First, he says, the jail is overcrowded, causing both prisoners and corrections officers to become surly, and secondly, prisoners don’t receive appropriate medical attention.
“This situation of overcrowding makes everything tough,” says Gettleman, who, with his client, is considering legal action. “It makes everyone hostile toward each other, because people are fighting over the most minor pieces of space. It turns the place into a pressure cooker.”
Hart acknowledges there is an overcrowding problem at the two main jail facilities in the county, and it has forced jail officials to think critically about who they hold onsite and who they place under probation or parole. “Our main jail is at about 125 percent of capacity,” he says. “It’s been a challenge. It makes us really examine who we hold and why, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Some concerns from Gettleman and certain activists rest with the county’s medical provider, California Forensic Medical Group (CFMG), which assumes responsibilities for all duties relating to inmate health, including providing doctors, dispensing medication and performing routine check-ups.
CFMG has been named in several lawsuits filed in federal court, including one filed on Dec. 16, 2014 on behalf of Jacob Parenti, a 33-year-old man who died in Monterey County Jail in January of last year. The medical provider, which did not return calls seeking comment, is also a defendant in similar lawsuits in both Lake County and Humboldt County.
Hart says the county contracted with a medical provider because when the county staffed the medical positions, it was difficult to find doctors and nurses willing to work in a jail environment.
“CFMG provides a level of care to industry standards,” says Hart, who was not in office when the contract was signed.
Santa Cruz County’s contract with CFMG began in September 2012 with a cost of $2.8 million. The most recent contract costs $3.8 million, and will expire in June 2015. The Monterey-based company, founded by current CEO Taylor Fithian, contracts to provide similar services to about 65 other correctional facilities in California, in 27 different counties.
Because of perceived problems with CFMG, Sin Barras, a community organization opposed to the “prison industrial complex,” has asked Santa Cruz County to end its contract with the private subcontractor in its list of demands.
Such a change is unlikely, according to County Supervisor John Leopold, who says he hasn’t seen any problems with the contractor.
Sin Barras coordinated a “Cages Kill” march on Saturday, Jan. 24, in downtown Santa Cruz, in an attempt to bring attention to the six recent deaths, but also to the “broader context of overcrowding and lack of healthcare inside California jails and prisons,” according to a Sin Barras statement.
In an attempt to curb crowding, the Sheriff’s department introduced a Custody Alternatives Program (CAP), through which an increasing number of low-level offenders are released from jail and put on devices that track their whereabouts. The daily average of persons on the electronic monitoring program is 53. Another 196 participate in a work-release program on a daily basis.
Leopold says about 500 people in total have participated in CAP, adding that the program established a precedent that other law enforcement agencies in the state have begun to explore.
Since the advent of the program, five people have cut their devices, but none of them went on to commit serious crimes, Hart says.
Another major factor in incarceration rates statewide is how law enforcement is being used to address mental health issues, Hart says. “A large number of our current jail population would be much better in a mental health facility,” he says.
Such facilities are already overcrowded, and state budget cuts the past few years have reduced the availability of such mental health services, programs and facilities.
Hart says another element will be the recently passed Proposition 47, which will reduce the severity of 26 crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, including personal possession and use of most illicit drugs. Although law enforcement officials have worried this will create a revolving door for criminals, Hart says the newly enacted law should “take the tire pressure out of the jail system.”
Hart says jail officials have also made a couple of major changes—including the introduction of a correctional officer dedicated to quality assurance in order to ensure the protocols in place are followed. “We took from the report what we thought would be beneficial to the system and in some cases, financially we just can’t,” Hart says.
It’s too early to say, though, if more funding will be in the correctional department’s future.
“We spend about $20 million [per year] on corrections,” Leopold says. “We try to spend every dollar wisely. We are constantly looking for ways to spend the money as wisely as possible. We’ll take a look at allocations and see if the investments we’ve made in the jail provide enough resources.”
PHOTO: Defense lawyer Jonathan Gettleman compares Santa Cruz County’s crowded jail system to a pressure cooker. KEANA PARKER