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Calif. county jail violates inmates' rights, 'harms people it incarcerates,' DOJ report finds
San Luis Obispo, Calif.
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The federal agency also called on the jail to make changes to address these constitutional violations

Sep 1, 2021

By Kaytlyn Leslie and Matt Fountain
The Tribune 
SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — The San Luis Obispo County Jail violated the rights of inmates by failing to provide adequate medical care and subjecting some incarcerated people to excessive uses of force, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Tuesday.

According to the Justice Department, a multi-year investigation into the jail concluded "that there is reason to believe that the practices at the jail violate the Eighth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)."

"San Luis Obispo County violated the rights of prisoners in its jail in several ways, including failing to provide adequate health care and subjecting some prisoners to excessive force," acting U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison said in a news release. "Our office is dedicated to defending the civil rights of everyone in this district, including those behind bars."

The sheriff's office says that the report fails to take into account the many remedial measures already undertaken to improve inmate treatment.
The sheriff's office says that the report fails to take into account the many remedial measures already undertaken to improve inmate treatment. (San Luis Obispo County)

The federal agency also called on the jail to make changes to address these constitutional violations.

The Justice Department investigation was launched in October 2018 amid a series of inmate deaths, lawsuits and a FBI investigation into alleged civil rights abuses of mentally and medically ill County Jail inmates.

The FBI formally launched an investigation into the county's treatment of jail inmates in May 2017 after receiving at least one complaint related to the January 2017 death of Atascadero resident Andrew Holland.

Holland died while in custody at the County Jail after being bound naked in a restraint chair for 46 hours.

A Tribune review of County Jail tapes revealed that San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office deputies watched as the man writhed on the floor, lost consciousness and later died.

In addition to ongoing costs to defend against several lawsuits, San Luis Obispo County paid a $5 million settlement to Holland's family in July 2017.

Holland's death prompted outrage throughout San Luis Obispo County, and raised questions about treatment of mentally and medically ill prisoners at the County Jail.

In its announcement Tuesday, the Justice Department concluded that "there is reasonable cause to believe that the jail fails to provide constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners, that the jail violates the constitutional rights of prisoners with serious mental illness through its prolonged use of restrictive housing and that the jail violates the constitutional rights of prisoners through the use of excessive force."

The investigation also found that the jail "violated the ADA by denying prisoners with mental health disabilities access to services, programs and activities because of their disabilities," according to the release.

The Justice Department said it has provided the jail with written notice of the supporting facts for these findings as well as the "minimum remedial measures necessary to address them."

"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 health care," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who is with the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in the release.

"After a comprehensive investigation, we found that the San Luis Obispo County Jail harms the people it incarcerates by subjecting them to excessive force and by failing to provide adequate medical and mental health care," Clarke said. "The Justice Department hopes to continue to work with the jail to resolve these systemic problems."

SLO County Sheriff's Office responds to DOJ report

Soon after the Justice Department report was released Tuesday, the Sheriff's Office issued a news release saying that the San Luis Obispo County agency "recognize(s) the issues and concerns brought forth" in the report, but that it "fails to take into account the many remedial measures undertaken by the Sheriff's Office" since the investigation began in 2018.

According to the release, San Luis Obispo County was named a Stepping Up Initiative "Innovator County" for its work reducing the number of days people with serious mental illness are in jail custody.

The county also started a jail-based competency treatment program to restore patients with serious mental illness to competency to avoid long California Department of State Hospital wait times, the release said.

In addition, San Luis Obispo County created the Behavioral Health Unit and Kansas Max Housing Unit, which provide "dedicated space to treat and house patients with special needs, including chronic medical and mental health problems," and expanded its medical, mental and dental health care for inmates under Wellpath, according to the release.

Meanwhile the county has initiated a Compliance Unit at the jail, including a chief medical officer position, and increased staffing, as well as implementing crisis intervention training for staff.

According to the release, ADA improvements at the County Jail are also progressing as a result of a recent settlement.

Notably, the Sheriff's Office said that any allegations of inappropriate force being used have been investigated by the Professional Standards Unit and those that were proven true resulted in disciplinary action.

"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 in the release. "We are pleased with our progress so far and will continue to work diligently to provide a safe and secure jail facility."
(c)2021 The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)

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