Santa Clara Jail Report Finds Widespread Complaints of Inmate Abuse

Jail cell.  (iStockphoto)

A new report on conditions at Santa Clara County jail facilities finds widespread inmate complaints of physical and verbal abuse and other forms of harassment by correctional officers -- with little recourse for those who have grievances.

The report, based in large part on confidential interviews with 944 inmates, was carried out at the direction of a Blue Ribbon Commission appointed to investigate jail conditions after three guards were charged with murder last year in the death of a mentally ill inmate.

Results of the report, which also included interviews with 33 jail staff members and eight relatives of inmates, were released at a meeting of the panel last Saturday.

The commission hired San Francisco law firm Moscone Emblidge & Otis to conduct the interviews, in which approximately 27 percent of inmates and 3 percent to 4 percent of staff participated.

The report found widespread complaints that correctional officers use excessive force "in routine jail movements and lockdowns. Interviewees emphasized that officers’ use of force does not always stop when an emergency ends; physical violence and pepper spray often continue even after an inmate is fully restrained and no longer a threat to anyone’s safety."

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Some inmates told interviewers that "some officers use physical force against inmates who 'talk back' ... and that a few officers use force disproportionately with vulnerable inmates, such as those who are mentally ill, elderly, or without family, because these inmates are less able to speak up for themselves."

Inmates complained that officers often aren't held accountable for abusing inmates. On the other hand, jail staff told interviewers that the jail's administration often exercises favoritism in meting out discipline and "sometimes rushes to hold officers accountable before culpability has been established."

"The perceived combination of 'sweep it under the rug' culture with 'throw officers under the bus' reactions from administration results in staff morale that is reported to be exceedingly low," the report said.

Jodie Smith, the attorney who presented the report's findings Saturday, said both inmates and correctional staff view the jail's system for filing and acting on grievances as broken.

The system requires inmates to hand grievance slips directly to correctional officers, the report says, adding that many prisoners report that officers simply refuse to take the slips or tear them up.

Attorneys said many inmates report that guards retaliate against those who complain, with some saying they avoid filing grievances because they fear the consequences.

“They didn’t want to be locked down," Smith said of the inmates. "They didn’t want to have strip searches, they didn’t want to have force used against them, they didn’t want to receive disciplinary infractions, and they feared, based on their observations of others, that’s what would happen to them.”

Sheriff Laurie Smith, an ex-officio member of the blue ribbon commission, listened intently to the findings. Following the four-hour meeting, she wrote in a statement, “We are not waiting for every report to be issued before we take action.”

Smith said locked grievance collection boxes were being installed in all facilities “so that inmates feel safe in making a complaint." She vowed to implement a complaint-tracking process "to ensure those complaints don't fall on deaf ears.”

LaDoris Cordell, the retired Superior Court judge who heads the commission, says she plans to discuss a response to the findings at a meeting March 5.

The panel will also consider recommendations from a separate review of jail policies and procedures from special consultant Aaron Zisser.

Zisser, an attorney who previously served with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, called Santa Clara’s grievance system “a mess,” with serious flaws that result in “critical failures.”

Zisser found jail staff made no distinction between minor grievances and serious allegations -- and that claims of serious misconduct and incidents involving serious use of force, other serious misconduct and failure to report a use of force often were not referred for investigation.

“There really isn’t any meaningful independent oversight,” Zisser told the panel Saturday.

Zisser recommended the establishment of an independent oversight entity that has authority to enforce inmates’ rights and has full access to jail facilities, data, records, staff and administrators.

Zisser said the agency should be fully independent from the sheriff’s office and report directly to the Board of Supervisors.

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This article was produced as a project for the California Data Fellowship, a program of the Center for Health Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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