On July 29, criminal defense attorney T.J. Brewer stepped into the Rountree Medium Facility in Watsonville to meet privately with an incarcerated client. Normally, during these abnormal Covid times, attorneys and clients meet over Zoom or other teleconferencing sites.
However, this time was different.
“It was one of those conversations that could not be on Zoom. It had to be face-to-face,” Brewer recalls.
He says officers placed him in the attorney box—a private area where attorney-client privilege could be kept confidential.
“Or what they told me was the attorney box during Covid,” Brewer says.
A week later he was representing the same client in court when the District Attorney approached him with shocking news.
“He informed me the jail had not turned off the recording devices in that room,” he says. “A number of things were [turned over] to him, including my conversation.”
Not only is this a major—and illegal—breach, but also a violation of his client’s Sixth Amendment constitutional rights. To Brewer, it’s one more reason why Santa Cruz County should have a Sheriff Oversight Committee, a call that has gained momentum over the past two years.
“Having an independent entity outside the civilian base to hold them accountable is appropriate,” he says. “It’s just an appropriate way to exercise power.”
In 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1185—which went into effect on Jan. 1—granting counties the ability to create watchdog agencies over their respective sheriff’s offices. This could either be in the form of an oversight committee, an independent investigator or both, with subpoena power giving them considerable authority to investigate and expose misconduct.
The bill was first introduced in 2017 by Sacramento District Assemblyman Kevin McCarty in the wake of the killing of Mikel McIntyre, an unarmed, mentally disabled man who Sacramento police shot six times in the back as he ran.
Prior to the passing of AB1185, counties like Los Angeles and Santa Clara already had their own versions of oversight committees in place. Since its passing, Sonoma and San Francisco have joined in creating watchdog groups, bringing the total number of cities and counties in the state with some form of police or sheriff oversight to 21.
Of all the law enforcement offices within Santa Cruz County, only the Santa Cruz Police Department has an independent auditor to investigate claims of abuse, misconduct or public complaints.
Last week, the Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to explore establishing an independent investigator to oversee the Sheriff’s Office, reversing a previous decision made last September. Sheriff Jim Hart, who attended the meeting and provided the presentation, supported the move, but was also quick to point out that his office is overseen by the Board of State and Community Corrections, the County Supervisors and the Civil Grand Jury.
“I disagree there is no oversight,” he said.
During the public discussion, many people said that an independent investigator was not enough, and that only a citizens committee would be diverse and transparent enough to investigate law enforcement officials. County staff said having a single auditor would be the more financially prudent model in a time of already limited resources, but did not rule out investigating a citizens committee for the future.
“The recommended actions here do not exclude further investigation into a citizens commission,” said Supervisor Manu Koenig. “That can certainly be another step this board considers at another time.”
Lisa McCamey, the president of the Criminal Defense Bar, tells GT that an independent third-party investigator should be the standard for all law enforcement agencies.
“If the Sheriff’s Office is accused of doing something wrong, I don’t know if it’s necessarily appropriate for them to be investigating themselves,” she says.
TROUBLE ON TAPE
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Office spokeswoman Ashley Keehn said an investigation into the illegal recordings found that between March 1, 2020 and July 26, 2021—the day they were brought to Sheriff Hart’s attention—351 recordings were made. Keehn says they were a result of human error, and that the people involved were notified as soon as they were discovered. All recordings have been deleted, Keehn says.
“It was an oversight on our part,” she adds.
McCamey says the problem occurred because the privileged meetings took place in the facility’s normal visiting rooms, where families can place phone calls to their incarcerated loved ones through glass. These calls are always recorded with clearly posted signs notifying visitors.
“[Brewer] repeatedly asked if he was going to be recorded and was told, ‘No, no, these will not be,’” she says. “So I don’t know how that disconnect happened.”
The issue is one of many that has plagued the corrections bureau over the years. Most recently, that includes charges of sexual assault by officers, power outages at the Main Jail, overcrowding, understaffing and multiple deaths.
The Sheriff’s Office also banned physical mail delivery within the correctional system as of Dec. 1, 2021. Instead, any snail mail that isn’t monetary, or related to court cases or attorney-client interactions, is sent to a contracted vendor, Smart Communications MailGuard, in Florida to be scanned. The recipients can then view their mail via tablets they can check out. The physical copies are then destroyed.
Authorities say this is another step in preventing contraband from entering the facilities. The announcement came in the wake of multiple reported overdoses within the Main Jail in September, but Keehn says there is no direct correlation.
“It’s something we’ve been looking into for a while,” she says. “But, yes, it has everything to do with contraband coming in and doing our best to keep staff and the incarcerated safe.”
Yet sources close to the matter say it is an unnecessary added step that dehumanizes and further disenfranchises the jail population.
“If you ask the inmates if [contraband] comes in like that, they say, ‘No, it comes in with the correctional officers, cooks or new inmates,’” explains one source who asked to remain anonymous, pointing out that every piece of outside mail is already physically searched for contraband prior to inmate delivery.
In August, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) decreased the high rates and fees normally charged to incarcerated individuals and families for phone calls, limiting the charges to seven cents per minute and cutting many of the additional third-party fees. However, the anonymous source says that since the CPUC’s cap, the jail phone service provider canceled inmates’ two free calls a week, something many indigent inmates relied on.
The source also says that since Wellpath LLC—a private clinician based out of Nashville, Tennessee—has taken over, medical oversights are a common occurrence. In one example, the anonymous source states inmates are supposed to receive medication three times a day, in the morning, afternoon and dinner.
“However, they don’t have enough staff, so now they’re giving [inmates] two medications at once,” they state. The source also says they’ve heard that inmates have received the wrong medication due to distribution changes with Wellpath.
“But how do you prove that?” they ask. “That’s why you need oversight, because we don’t know.”
It was a claim also raised by a member of the community during the public comment portion at last week’s supervisors’ meeting.
Keehn says she is not aware of these allegations, but that there are proper channels inmates can take to report any issue.
“If one does feel like they aren’t getting the right dosage of medication or something they aren’t prescribed, they should let correctional officers or medical staff know to get that corrected,” she says.
Wellpath contracts with over 300 counties and departments throughout the country, and roughly 38 within the state, including Monterey County. They are owned by H.I.G. Capital, a private “alternative investment” equity firm based in Miami worth more than $45 billion.
As reported by nonprofit watchdog group the Project on Government Oversight, Wellpath and its subsidiaries have been sued almost 1,400 times since 2003. This includes multiple lawsuits in Santa Cruz and neighboring counties. In a 2019 article, CNN exposed Wellpath—then Correct Care Solutions—as the company providing healthcare to federal immigration detention facilities, which have been riddled with malpractice and wrongful deaths.
Last June, a Civil Grand Jury investigation into the Main Jail concluded that the “Board of Supervisors has failed to assert and exercise proper oversight within their purview of the Main Jail.” The adoption of an inspector general or oversight committee, the Civil Grand Jury stated, would “provide necessary public transparency and structure to support the Board of Supervisors’ supervision of the Sheriff’s Office Corrections Bureau.”
The Civil Grand Jury recommended that within six months after its investigation was published the supervisors should either establish an inspector general or oversight committee or place the issue before county voters.
Later that month, a virtual town hall—attended by 96 people—was held to discuss the Civil Grand Jury report and AB1185. Along with Sheriff Hart, the town hall was attended by Brenda J. Griffin, president of the Santa Cruz Chapter of the NAACP, Marshal Arnwine, Jr. from the Northern California ACLU and Santa Cruz Public Defender Mandy Tovar.
Activists hoped it would be the first step of many in establishing the need for an oversight body. However, in required responses released in September, both the Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s Office disagreed with the Grand Jury’s conclusions.
At the time, the Board of Supervisors rejected the idea that such a body would provide transparency, saying, “The Board of State and Community Corrections and the Civil Grand Jury already provide effective oversight.” It also rejected another Civil Grand Jury recommendation of opening the discussion to public comments, stating every Board of Supervisors meeting has a public comment section where people are granted two minutes to bring issues forward.
“Every recommendation made to elected officials aren’t effectuated, and not even everything elected officials bring forth to their bodies are passed,” County Supervisor Zach Friend tells GT. “Things in a public process take time, even good ideas take time. We shouldn’t live in a zero-sum expectation.”
In November, the Santa Cruz County Criminal Justice Council’s (CJC) Ad Hoc Committee on Law Enforcement Policies and Procedures released their highly anticipated report.
A joint effort by Watsonville-based Applied Survey Research, the Sheriff’s Office and police chiefs from every department in the county, the report gathered the procedures of each department to determine how they differ, how they are the same and what they can do to improve. The report represents 10 months of work spearheaded by Santa Cruz City Councilman Justin Cummings, who is running for the 3rd District Supervisorial seat, and Friend. It was initiated as a response to local and national calls for police reform in the wake of the 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of police.
“It was important to have a transparent and open look at law enforcement policies and procedures in the community, particularly around the use of force,” explains Friend.
The report found that all of the county law enforcement agencies practiced de-escalation, have banned facial recognition and predictive policing technology, do not participate in no-knock warrants and that none receive military equipment from the federal government.
It is the first report of its kind in the country, and will be followed up later this year when the CJC investigates behavioral health within the justice system.
“The value of the CJC is taking a deeper dive to present the information to the greater community and policymakers,” Friend says. “It’s to say, ‘This is a snapshot that is happening in your community. Should there be changes to have a broader discussion?’”
[Editor’s Note: The online headline for this story has been changed, as it inaccurately reflected Sheriff Jim Hart’s position on the Board of Supervisors vote.]