The Justice Department announced on Tuesday that the San Luis Obispo County Jail in California has violated the rights of its inmates by failing to provide them with proper healthcare, particularly for mental health conditions, and subjecting them to excessive use of force.
The announcement comes three years after the Justice Department launched an investigation into the jail’s facilities in October of 2018 in response to a number of prisoner deaths at the facility.
In its findings, the department said “there is reasonable cause to believe, based on the totality of the conditions, practices and incidents discovered at the San Luis County Jail” that the facility violates the Eighth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.
Specially, the investigators found that the jail fails to provide prisoners with constitutionally adequate medical care and adequate mental healthcare.
It also uses prolonged restrictive measures against prisoners with serious mental illness that places them at substantial risk of serious harm as well as fails to prevent, detect or correct such uses of force.
The county jail also denies equal access to services, programs or activities to prisoners with disabilities, in particular those with mental health disabilities.
“Our Constitution guarantees that all people held in jails and prisons across our country are treated humanely, and that includes providing access to necessary medical and mental healthcare,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “After a comprehensive investigation, we found that San Luis Obispo Jail harms the people it incarcerates by subjecting them to excessive force and by failing to provide adequate medical and mental healthcare.”
The jail, located outside the city of San Luis Obispo, which is about 190 miles north of Los Angeles, houses approximately 540 prisoners at any time, a signifiant portion of whom suffer from mental illness.
According to the report, at any given time about 39% of its prisoner population is taking some form of psychotropic medication and the jail estimates that more than 90% of its population have substance abuse issues.
The report said that the jail fails to provide prisoners, many of whom have serious medical needs, with adequate medical assessments and does not evaluate or treat those who request medical attention in a timely manner.
These conditions, it said, subject them to substantial risk of serious harm, and which are exacerbated by inadequate staffing, monitoring and oversight, among other issue.
The investigation, which opened following a series of deaths at the facility, said that between January 2012 and June 2020, 16 prisoners died under its care, including a 36-year-old man who suffered from schizophrenia.
The man, identified only by the initials AA, died after spending 46 consecutive hours strapped to a restraint chair, which followed him being held in isolation for 16 months.
He was placed in the restraint chair on Jan. 20, 2017, after he was observed hitting himself in the face and head, and he remained in that chair naked aside from a blanket until Jan. 22.
“Within 40 minutes after being released from the restraint chair, he died of a pulmonary embolism,” which is blood clots that form as a result of a lack of mobility, the report said.
The report states that though the facility discontinued the use of the restraint chair and made other changes prisoners who suffered from mental of physical health issues continued to die at the facility.
The investigators concluded that staff frequently use force against prisoners where force is unnecessary or where the degree of force is greater than what is required while also applying force without first seeking compliance through voluntary means.
“Prisoners who curse at deputies or disobey minor routine instructions — e.g., to stop yelling or kicking a cell — are often subjected to force even when the force is unnecessary to ensure safety,” it said.
They also found that the jail over relies on restrictive housing to manage prisoners with serious mental illness, which subjects many of them to serious harm, including death.
“The county also inappropriately uses restrictive housing to manage prisoners who have recently attempted suicide or engaged in acts of self-directed violence,” the report states. “Prisoners who have been housed in restrictive housing for prolonged periods frequently engage in acts of self-harm.”
The department in the report has listed dozens of measures, and that within 49 days after issuing the report, the attorney general may initiate a lawsuit to correct the identified deficiencies, it said.
In a statement Tuesday, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office said it has received the report, but said it fails to take into account the measures it has taken since the investigation began.
“The sheriff’s office has worked cooperatively with the Department of Justice over the past three years to investigate deficiencies and determine appropriate improvements to ensure our jail facility is fully compliant with federal law,” Sheriff Ian Parkinson said. “We are pleased with our progress so far and will continue to work diligently to provide a safe and secure jail facility.”