Following the beating death of a mentally ill inmate, Santa Clara County leaders have called for a top-to-bottom investigation of local jails.
Supervisors Dave Cortese and Cindy Chavez last week announced a plan to convene a “Blue Ribbon Commission” to evaluate conditions at Elmwood and the Main Jail and propose reforms.
The recommendations come two weeks after 31-year-old Michael Tyree was founded bloodied and beaten on his cell floor. Days later, three correctional officers—Jereh Lubrin, Rafael Rodriquez and Matthew Farris—were charged with murder and beating a second inmate.
“Although no … future action of the county will ever bring Michael Tyree back to his family, we can honor his memory by working as swiftly as possible to implement change,” Cortese stated in a memo endorsing the initiative, which comes up for consideration at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “We are committed to doing just that.”
In calling for an audit of the jail system, county officials acknowledge that the incident may reflect systemic problems.
“This commission will have a broad mandate to look at every aspect of our custody operations,” Cortese said in a statement, “and we’re asking them to swiftly conduct their work.”
The proposal—backed by Sheriff Laurie Smith and Undersheriff John Hirokawa—includes a provision to install more surveillance cameras in both jails. It would create an anonymous hotline for the public and inmates to report complaints and require more training for correctional officers to deal with mentally ill inmates. County leaders have also asked local clergy and inmate advocates to come forward and work with inmates and custodial staff.
“It’s critical that we operate our custody facilities in an open and transparent manner,” Chavez said. “Inmates, staff and family members should be comfortable in filing complaints.”
Smith, Cortese and Hirokawa have appealed for help from the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections (NIC) to evaluate policies and training at the county jails.
“The overwhelming majority of the deputies who put on a uniform each day are doing a fantastic job and reflect our high standards,” Smith said. “The plan submitted to the board will jumpstart an effort to inform us on what we’re doing right and where we can make meaningful changes.”
Hirokawa admitted that his staff needs more training to deal with the influx of inmates suffering from psychiatric issues. The county’s Department of Correction oversees more than 3,600 inmates—the fifth largest jail system in California.
“The realities are our inmate population has changed dramatically over the past several years, especially as it relates to the number of inmates diagnosed with severe mental illness,” he said. “The NIC’s expertise is welcomed and we are asking them to begin as quickly as possible.”
Earlier this summer, the Prison Law Office pointed to what it called serious constitutional violations at the county's jails. The year prior, the local Jail Observer Program noted that the jails are ill-equipped to deal with a growing number of mentally ill inmate.
This story has been updated.
- A health survey of the county’s African American population found that infants of African ancestry have a higher mortality rate other racial and ethnic groups. Black infants have a death rate of six per 1,000 live births compared to three per 1,000 for the county overall. The health assessment also found that the local African American population has a lower life expectancy (78.9 year) compared to the rest of the county and a higher incidence of physical and mental ailments. “Racism and discrimination are pervasive sources of stress and anxiety that directly impact the mental and physical health of African/African ancestry community members across all socio-economic strata,” the county found.
- The county will re-evaluate its policy of limiting cooperation with federal immigration officials. A high-profile case in San Francisco, where an undocumented man allegedly shot and killed a woman, ignited public debate about “sanctuary city” policies. Pressure from the public prompted Cortese to call for a review of this county’s policy against turning over undocumented criminals to federal agents.
- County sheriff’s deputies will soon have to wear body cameras. Supervisors set aside $750,000 for nearly 300 cameras, download and charging stations, training and data storage.
- The county is spending $2,291 a day to care for a seriously mentally ill woman. The woman spent more than 200 days at the Valley Medical Center and was denied from 20 mental health facilities before being accepted to San Miguel Villa, a nursing home the East Bay. “This client is monolingual, with a long history of severe medical needs that require daily monitoring and serious mental health issues which are so significant that she requires one-to-one supervision,” according to the county’s Mental Health Services department. “She is not Medicare eligible. The client requires placement at a locked setting due to mental status and difficult to mange behaviors. Additionally, this client also refuses medical treatments for physical health needs. These complicated factors made it very difficult to place this client in many facilities. With exception to San Miguel Villa, no facility would accept her.”
WHAT: Board of Supervisors meets
WHEN: 9am Tuesday
WHERE: County Government Center, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose
INFO: Clerk of the Board, 408.299.5001