Contra Costa must better jail conditions under court agreement

MARTINEZ — Contra Costa County’s jails will be monitored for at least three years to ensure health care conditions improve as laid out by a court-approved consent decree.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a settlement stemming from a complaint in 2016 by three inmates who alleged the county’s jails don’t meet standards of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits subjecting criminal defendants to unduly harsh punishment, or requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Under the agreement reached with the Prison Law Office, which represented the plaintiffs, court-appointed experts will monitor the county’s progress in implementing two plans designed to improve jail conditions for medical and mental health care. The Prison Law Office will also monitor and be able to tour the jails. The county must prepare its own progress reports every six months.

While the agreement’s terms are officially effective for five years, county officials can seek to terminate the decree after three years and petition the court to eliminate monitoring of remedied conditions. For its part, the Prison Law Office can petition the court to reinstate monitoring or extend the terms of the agreement.

Representatives from the Prison Law Office have said the county has already implemented some reforms, such as reducing the use of solitary confinement, increasing privacy during the bookings, classifying incarcerated people based on behavior instead of criminal charges and making changes to units that house people with mental illnesses.

The Sheriff’s Office has also reduced the jail population since the coronavirus pandemic began.

“Maintaining and further reducing the current jail population—and shrinking the footprint of the County’s jail system — is, without question the best pathway to cost-effective and successful implementation of the remedial plan,” Corene Kendrick, staff attorney at the Prison Law Office, said in a statement.

The mental health care improvement plan requires the county to place people who are actively suicidal under constant observation 24 hours a day, increase its programming and create individualized plans to take care of patients struggling with mental health issues or crises. The medical care plan calls for the jails to have adequate clinical space, a pharmacist on site or on-call every day, regular access to health records and certain medications for released patients. County staff must also provide dental screenings within 14 days of booking someone if they haven’t been screened within the previous six months and then provide annual dental screenings if requested.

The settlement comes after a lengthy negotiation that the county and the Prison Law Office launched to avoid litigation over allegations that surfaced in 2016 but been going on for years, according to a complaint filed by the Law Office in U.S. District Court.

In 2015, the Contra Costa County Office of the Sheriff published a “Jail Needs Assessment” that noted what the Prison Law Office called  “extremely troubling” overcrowding at the main jail in Martinez. Later, multiple experts brought in to survey the conditions reported a litany of issues, including mismanaging medication, not providing timely medical care, a lack of group therapy, not enough time outside of cells and insufficient suicide prevention efforts. One correctional expert, Lindsay Hayes, found the suicide rate in Contra Costa jails was “significantly higher” than in jails of similar sizes in the U.S., according to the court documents.

In 2018, six people died in Contra Costa jails — making it one of the deadliest jail systems that year in California. Four more people died there in 2019. Those deaths were caused by suicide, medical issues or drug overdose, according to public records. The most recent death occurred in September, when a man developed complications during surgery to repair a broken jaw after a jail fight and died at the John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek.

One of the plaintiffs represented by the Prison Law Office — a 36-year-old pre-trial detainee with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — reported hitting the emergency medical button when he had symptoms such as vomiting, only to have deputies tell him to stop and refusing to bring him to medical staff. Other plaintiffs did not receive needed medication or physical therapy.

The county will also pay the Prison Law Office $396,543 for its costs thus far and pay for the monitoring costs under the agreement, which will be capped at $175,000. It is also spending millions to hire additional staff in the health department and in the Sheriff’s Office, which drew criticism during budget hearings this summer.

Contra Costa Board of Supervisors Chair Candace Andersen called the settlement a “road map for positive change,” noting that for detainees with mental health issues, “if we can provide them with much needed treatment while incarcerated and ensure that they have supportive services upon re-entry to the community, their lives will be substantially improved.”

Kendrick, of the Prison Law Office, noted that the terms of the agreement “will save countless lives, reduce the suffering of people confined in the jails and increase public safety.”

To view the complaint and full settlement, visit

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