A recent review of Santa Clara County jails found that inmate complaints often fall on deaf ears and that a lack of oversight allows guards to conceal their own misconduct.
The findings—part of an independent analysis presented to the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Improving Custody Operations earlier this month—pointed to “critical failures at every stage” of the grievance process. Consultant Aaron Zisser said the complaint system has been corrupted by a lack of confidentiality and oversight.
In a concurrent report based on interviews with 944 inmates, San Francisco attorney Scott Emblidge echoed Zisser's findings. Inmates told him that jailors often retaliate by writing them up or reducing out-of-cell time for complaining about inadequate medical care, living conditions or brutality.
While Emblidge and his staff interviewed more than a quarter of the inmate population, only 33 jail staffers agreed to interviews. Several inmates accused jailors of retaliating because of interviews for the blue ribbon commission.
Commission chair LaDoris Cordell, a retired judge and San Jose’s former independent police auditor, is asking the Board of Supervisors to increase Zisser’s contract by $10,000 to $30,000 so he can continue to review policies and procedures. Supervisors will vote on the matter Tuesday.
The blue ribbon commission was formed in response to the fatal beating last August of 31-year-old mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree. Its first order of business was to call for a top-down review of jail policies. It then commissioned Zisser, who spent six years with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, to investigate the grievance process and study county policies.
In his initial analysis, Zisser said the county needs ongoing independent oversight to fix a broken system. He said the jails fail to properly distinguish between grievances about custody conditions and complaints about staff misconduct.
Meanwhile, serious allegations about use of force and staff misconduct rarely get referred for investigation, he found. Responses to complaints are unnecessarily slow or thrown out before trying to verify the allegations.
Prisoners often don’t even know their rights, he added.
“The jail provides grossly inadequate information to inmates regarding the options they have for addressing staff misconduct and other serious concerns, such as sexual misconduct by other inmates,” he wrote in his report earlier this month. “Information is disjointed, haphazard and incomplete.”
Contrary to custody best practices, the county allows accused officers to resolve complaints against them, Zisser found. Responding to an inmate grievance in July last year, a correctional deputy wrote that “attitudes and slamming door are not grievable offense,” per the report. A supervisor concurred.
In September last year, another inmate reported being strapped into a chair, choked and groped by a sergeant. “Who’s going to believe you over me,” the inmate claimed the sergeant asked him before laughing at him and leaving. The sergeant’s response: “You are falsifying information for personal gain.”
“Grievances frequently yield inappropriate, incomplete and delayed responses,” Zisser found. “Accused staff respond to grievances. Such responses are often inappropriate and even intimidating. Custody input forms are subjective and can be used to retaliate. Deadlines for responses are inconsistent, not always followed, not binding on custody health and, for [the Prison Rape Elimination Act], far too long. Inmates do not receive notification or explanation of delays.”
Complaints handled by the Internal Affairs Unit, according to Zisser, often result in little to no discipline. In July of last year, a correctional officer wrote in an incident report about grabbing the back of an inmate’s shirt and pinning him up against the break room door. A supervisor noted that the deputy was trying to get out of writing a report by dismissing the incident but resolved the issue with verbal counseling.
Months later, a deputy apparently violated the county’s policy on body cavity searches. But there was no record of his discipline, according to Zisser.
In December of 2013, staff reported finding an inmate “laying face down in a pool of blood … from a two-inch laceration.” A complaint was made directly to Internal Affairs, which failed to interview the inmate, witnesses and officers. IA also failed to check on prior complaints against the officers involved. Despite the lack of follow-through, the case wasn’t closed until six months later.
To make matters worse, the jails rely on outdated data systems and under-trained staff. They also operate without independent oversight.
Zisser and Emblidge didn’t verify the credibility of inmate allegations, they noted. Their reviews focused on the procedures in place and perceptions of inmates and staff. After the two reports were released, Sheriff Laurie Smith said she would install locked complaint collection boxes to make inmates feel safer about filing a grievance.
Cordell has asked to extend Zisser’s contract so he can continue to help the blue ribbon commission by going further into depth on the findings uncovered in his previous report.
- The county will consider spending $250,000 to improve the Main Jail lobby, which lacks privacy for people receiving counseling and medical or mental health interviews. The project stems from an ongoing effort to improve accommodations for disabled inmates and their families.
- With the weather warming up, the county will start dismantling its winter homeless shelter in Sunnyvale to relocate it to a nearby site at Onizuka Air Force Station.
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