.‘Stressful’ Conditions

Grand jury reports jail staff ‘deeply dissatisfied’

Many people who are arrested and booked into Santa Cruz County Jail lose not only their freedom but also access to health care and mental health services.

That’s according to a report released June 11 by the Santa Cruz County Grand Jury.

Lack of staff and programs, improper usage of facilities and mistreatment of inmates, including the mentally ill, were all found during the report.

The investigation included tours of Santa Cruz County’s three jails: Rountree, Blaine Street and the Main Jail.

The report said the staff is “deeply dissatisfied” with the physical conditions of the jail and said the conditions negatively impact the mental health of both inmates and staff. Even for those in good mental health, merely being in the jail building was said to be “disturbing and stressful.”

The Main Jail houses mentally ill inmates without a certified mental healthcare facility.

Statistics in the report show 30%-40% of those incarcerated suffer from mental health disorders. This makes the jails the largest mental healthcare provider in the county, the report said.

Most mentally ill inmates either obtain psychotropic medication or require them. Further information provided evidence of overmedicating patients as well.

“Mentally ill residents should be cared for in health facilities, not housed in jail,” the report said.

The report also touched on the use of “safety cells,” also known as solitary confinement.

In California, safety cells are used when inmates pose a danger to themselves or others. They are typically used for short-term confinement.

But evidence provided to the Grand Jury revealed that inmates were held in safety cells for days.

Procedures required by California Title 15 section 1209 and the sheriff’s department state: “In no case shall the safety cell be used for punishment or as a substitute for Mental Health treatment.”

The Grand Jury discovered that inmates are put in safety cells for reasons including, but not limited to:

  • Breaking the rules.
  • Threatening to cause harm to themselves or others.
  • Having a mental health crisis.

The main concern was the misuse of the safety cell, according to a health inspector’s report.

The ongoing issues go beyond the Main Jail. There are staffing shortages at Rountree Jail, a medium-level jail housing medium-offenders.

Last year’s 2023 Grand Jury Jail report suggested reopening one of the two closed units at Rountree, which was previously closed for maintenance. But today, it is still closed due to staffing shortages. Reopening the second unit would offer more balance between the three facilities.

There are also staffing shortages at the Blaine Street facility for women, which dropped 10 positions.

The Grand Jury expressed concern about the shortage, given the high number of patients needing help. Wellpath, the outside agency supplying staff to the jail has high turnover since the pandemic and only provides coverage for 18 hours a day.

“We are currently in the process of thoroughly reviewing the report and look forward to addressing and correcting the misinformation included within it,” Sheriff’s Public Information Officer Ashley Keehn replied.

The agencies that are subject to grand jury investigations are not required to make any of the suggested changes. But they are required to respond within 90 days.

The Grand Jury suggested the investigation would have benefited from inmate interviews, as it would have provided insights on jailers’ experiences. However, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office denied this, saying it has never been done before and would set a bad precedent.

But according to Penal Code Section 916, jurors do in fact have the right to use two jurors for each individual interview with an inmate.

Keehn said that the Grand Jury has several methods they can use to contact incarcerated individuals that ensure the safety and privacy of all parties involved, including using subpoenas to obtain necessary information.

Anyone with further information, please contact ed****@go*******.sc.

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