The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department announced a settlement in a class-action lawsuit regarding conditions of confinement at the County Jail.
The settlement from the Dec. 6, 2017, lawsuit was announced Friday night by the Sheriff’s Office. The case involved plaintiffs Clay Murray, David Franco, Shareen Winkle, Maria Tracy and Erick Brown. The plaintiffs were represented by several different attorneys, including Disability Rights California, Prison Law Office, and King & Spalding LLP.
The lawsuit alleged that conditions at the jail do not meet the minimum standards under the Constitution and federal law, with the plaintiffs arguing that the county and Sheriff’s Office “failed to provide adequate mental health and medical care, overused and misused solitary confinement, discriminated against people with disabilities, and allowed for unsanitary and unsafe living conditions for people incarcerated at the jail,” according to the plaintiffs.
The lead plaintiff, Mr. Murray, is an Army veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who uses a wheelchair. While in custody, the plaintiffs said he received no meaningful mental health treatment and was confined to a housing unit that was inaccessible to people with physical disabilities.
“Activities as basic as taking a shower or using the toilet put Mr. Murray at risk of injury every day. Due to overcrowding and the lack of accessible beds, Mr. Murray was forced to sleep on the floor many nights.” read a statement from Disability Rights California.
Subject to court approval, the settlement binds Santa Barbara County and the Sheriff’s Office to changes that authorities say have already been implemented and future commitments to improve living conditions for people confined in the jail, said Raquel Zick, sheriff’s spokeswoman.
“The County and the Sheriff’s Office have been implementing process improvements and advancements over the last several years consistent with the settlement plan,” Ms. Zick said. “The settlement plan will result in more out of cell time for inmates, specialized mental health units and timelines to address different acuity levels of medical and mental health conditions, increased observations of actively suicidal inmates and decreased use of safety cells.”
Improvements to the Main Jail will provide ADA-related modifications and adequate space for programming for vulnerable populations and will allow increased participation in recreational activities, Ms. Zick said.
Both the Sheriff’s Office and the county have agreed to continue to address the jail’s “asserted deficiencies until durable solutions are implemented,” Ms. Zick said, adding that many requirements have been partially or completely implemented.
Sheriff Bill Brown issued a lengthy statement on the settlement, which he called “a milestone in our agency’s delivery of correctional services” to those in custody.
“(The settlement) sets the path toward much needed improvements in the processes, programs, and overall environment of the entire Main Jail campus,” Sheriff Brown said. “As these measures are implemented, we will be able to provide better correctional services to our incarcerated community members. Although our Custody professionals have performed admirably for years, they have been hampered in their efforts by limited resources and an obsolete and inefficient jail facility that is more than 50 years old. The much-welcomed subject matter expert evaluations and remedial plans that are a part of this agreement will pave the way toward a comprehensive community of care for the entire inmate population.”
Sheriff Brown said he appreciates the support from the county Board of Supervisors in the settlement, and also expressed gratitude to custody staff and members of the county counsel’s office to bring together “a roadmap for future progress.”
“As we enter into this agreement we know there will be many difficulties in meeting the myriad of requirements it contains, but I have confidence that the dedicated men and women in our Custody Operations Branch will rise up and see to it that we meet those challenges,” Sheriff Brown said.
The Sheriff’s Office and the county have agreed to pay the plaintiff’s counsel $1,132,809 for “reasonable fees and expenses incurred” when an investigation was launched into the conditions at the jail.
“We have communicated with hundreds of people held in the Santa Barbara County Jail, and have heard again and again that the conditions there are simply intolerable. The design and conditions of this half-century old jail have no place in modern society,” Aaron Fischer, litigation counsel at Disability Rights California said in a statement. “This settlement comes at a moment of critical urgency and great opportunity. The jail’s dangerous conditions are compounded by the tremendous risk that the COVID-19 pandemic poses to our clients. And we are also seeing a long overdue discussion about institutional racism and mass incarceration, both of which disproportionately harm people — especially people of color — with mental health needs and other disabilities. With this settlement, the community should expect significant improvements in conditions at the Santa Barbara County Jail.”
A copy of the settlement can be found at https://www.sbsheriff.org/class-action-stipulated-judgement-and-notice-of-settlement/.