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Alameda, Fresno, Riverside Counties Hit with Lawsuits for Prison Conditions

| March 19, 2013
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Don Thompson, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California has spent billions of dollars and endured years of federal lawsuits to improve conditions in its state prisons, but the problems it has been trying to correct are now trickling down to local governments as county jails deal with thousands of additional inmates.

Law firms advocating for inmates’ rights have sued or threatened lawsuits against a handful of California counties because of Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to send lower-level offenders to local jails instead of state prisons as a way to comply with a federal court order.

Fresno jail inmates. (Monica Lam/Center for Investigative Reporting)

Fresno jail inmates. (Monica Lam/Center for Investigative Reporting)

The lawsuits allege the subpar conditions that led to legal actions against the state’s prison system — overcrowding, poor medical and dental care, inadequate mental health treatment — are repeating themselves at the county level. They note that jails designed for short-term stays are now being flooded with thousands of new inmates, many of whom are serving long-term sentences.

Riverside County is the latest to be sued and will be served with the legal papers on Tuesday, attorneys say. Fresno County is trying to negotiate a settlement to a lawsuit filed shortly after Brown’s realignment plan took effect in October 2011. Alameda County was sued in November, and Monterey County is expecting to be sued.

“It was a masterful stroke by Governor Brown to shift all the state’s prison problems to county jails,” Monterey County Sheriff Scott Miller said.

His jail has become so crowded that he set out to buy triple-stacked bunk beds to handle the flood of inmates. Then a nearby state prison donated surplus beds it had been using when prison crowding there was at its worst.

“Ironically, the state of California gave us triple bunks they no longer need,” Miller said. The stacking of inmate beds in state prisons was one of the conditions that persuaded federal judges to order a drastic reduction in the prison population.

Nick Warner, the California State Sheriffs’ Association’s legislative director, said counties are concerned they will be exposed to the same liabilities under Brown’s so-called realignment plan that the state has spent billions of dollars trying to solve.

“They had problems before, but realignment makes it worse because people are spending more time in jail,” said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Berkeley-based Prison Law Office.

As of February, more than 1,100 inmates serving sentences of five years or more were in jails designed for stays of a year or less, and that number is expected to grow in the years ahead.

The Prison Law Office’s lawsuit against Riverside County claims that medical care is so poor in its jails that some of its 4,000 inmates go months without seeing a doctor. When they do, the lawsuit contends they receive only cursory medical exams, inadequate follow-up and are rarely referred to specialists even when outside care is clearly needed.

As an example, the suit notes the case of a female inmate who entered the Riverside County Jail with Stage 4 colon cancer.

“Nobody paid attention to her complaints that the cancer had returned,” said Sara Norman, the lead attorney filing the lawsuit.

Riverside County Sheriff Stanley Sniff said funding for jail mental health and medical services was cut during the recession but was being restored when Brown’s realignment law took effect, flooding the jail.

Inmates who previously would have been sent to state prisons now fill about a quarter of the county’s jail beds, forcing the early release of less-serious offenders. The county cannot keep up even with alternative custody programs such as tracking detainees with GPS-linked ankle bracelets, he said.

“We have more and more of these special circumstances we never had to deal with,” Sniff said.

The Prison Law Office’s lawsuit against Fresno County alleges that its inmates are routinely denied treatment for physical or mental illness or dental problems, and are vulnerable to attacks from other inmates because of the jail’s poor design and lack of staffing. Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said she could not discuss conditions because of the settlement talks.

Monterey County has inadequate facilities and programs for inmates who use wheelchairs, are blind or have other disabilities, or are mentally ill, said Michael Bien, whose San Francisco-based firm is considering a lawsuit.

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children sued Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern last fall over his jail’s treatment of disabled inmates, with both sides blaming the increase in disabled prisoners entering the jail since realignment.

“Unfortunately, you can’t just knock down a wall and make handicapped-accessible cells. It takes time,” said Alameda County Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. J.D. Nelson.

To comply with the federal lawsuits, state spending on inmate medical, dental and mental health care has more than doubled over the last decade to a projected $2.3 billion this fiscal year. The state also has spent billions of dollars on new medical facilities and equipment, while the number of prison medical, mental health and dental workers more than doubled over six years, to 12,200 in 2011.

State officials decided California could not comply with the federal court orders simply by building more prisons, so under Brown’s direction decided to sentence lower-level offenders to county jails. Those convicted of crimes that are considered serious, violent or sexual still go to state prison.

Counties are receiving about $865 million to help with jail operations under realignment this fiscal year, an amount that is expected to exceed $1 billion next year. Given the number of new inmates, some sheriffs are questioning whether that will be enough, especially if lawsuits force them to spend even more so conditions meet constitutional standards.

Republican state Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres has proposed legislation, SB144, that would funnel any money the state saves through realignment back to local communities. His office estimates that would give local governments about $777 million more each year.

In addition to the operating money, the state has given $1.2 billion to 21 of California’s 58 counties for jail construction, plus another $500 million to renovate existing jails. The money is expected to build space for nearly 15,000 local inmates over the next several years.

State Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard and the governor acknowledge that counties are facing a surge of more serious criminals as a result of the realignment law. Yet the Democratic governor is steadfast in his view that local governments are better able to make punishment decisions.

“People commit crimes in the local community and they are now, to a greater degree, being supervised, being rehabilitated or being incarcerated locally. We’re transferring billions of dollars to achieve that goal,” Brown said in January. “We want the community that spawns the crime to handle the crime.”

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