County Calls for ‘Blue Ribbon’ Commission, Audit of Local Jails

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.

More from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agenda for September 15, 2015:

  • 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.
  • 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

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. So the lower life expectancy of African Americans is due to racism? I wonder how much taxpayer money was wasted on this study? There is, of course, no scientific evidence cited in support of this purely political conclusion. One of the recommendations coming out of this survey was to “require African/African Ancestry Skills and Knowledge Certification for all health and social service professionals.” I guess the training will be another money making opportunity for those in the race business. Will Ladoris Cordell be putting on the classes (for a very generous fee, of course)?

    • Since “Blue Ribbon” (pay no attention to color, as the victim was Caucasion and guards were 2/3’s not) essentially means expensive, you can bet LaDoris will have a $250k position on the Board, not including 4th taxpayer funded pension. Also look for other race merchants, such as NAACP, La Raza Roundtable, Asian Law Alliance and De-Bug to vie for several positions. Most members qualify for the “formerly incarcerated” spots.

  2. Clearly, just being around Caucasians is causing Black babies to die… There’s simply no other explanation for the infant mortality. The stress of racism simply explains every problem in Black society- there’s only solutions. Kill all the whites, as advocated by Black Lives Matter, or make Blacks a protected class in which no rules or laws apply.

    Some may argue that poor diet contributes to heart related problems and diabetes, but that’s not true… for Black people. Others claim that poor health care, even though it’s essentially free through County programs, can increase infant health and increase longevity… but those medical “facts” only apply to crackers.

  3. Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez has admitted shooting Kathryn Steinle. He has never denied pulling the trigger. His sole defense is that it was accidental. So, you can drop the “allegedly” when writing about his crime. And you should grant Ms. Steinle the courtesy of using her name, instead of referring to her anonymously as “a woman.”

  4. One thing that our community needs to recognize is that our (Californian’s and elsewhere) increasingly laissez faire attitude toward substance abuse is actually a significant contributor to the problem of increasing incidence of mental illness.

    Too many people turn to controlled substances – especially methamphetamine and ecstasy due to their wide availability, comparative affordability vs duration of psychoactive effects – as a means of self-medicating for initial mental health issues – bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia being the most common initial mental health issues based on my personal experience. Unfortunately, extended use of these drugs (especially) have long term repercussions beyond the obvious – visible – effects on the body. The neurological damage these drugs cause eventually compound and exacerbate the problems the users were trying to ‘treat’ in the first place. Clinically, they can present as schizophrenic or bipolar or whatever, but the pathology is no longer the same and so the medications we know effectively treat these mental illnesses are no longer effective.

    Then, too, there are those who started using these drugs recreationally, and the outcome is essentially the same: extended use creates neurological damage causing the users to begin to present with psychological disorders the pathologies of which are not the same as the organic causes of mental illnesses as we conventionally think of them. And, again, the common treatments known to (usually) effectively treat or control these mental illnesses are not effective.

    That we continue to see rising incidence of mental illness is, yes, indicative of more effective diagnostic tools, but it is also equally reflective of gross dysfunction which exists at every level of our society: the aforementioned laissez faire attitude toward drug use, the lack of effective law enforcement tools to disincentivize the use of street drugs, the crumbling social mores and constraints which once helped to make use of street drugs less attractive due to the attendant, near-universal, stigma that was attached to it and, finally, the significant absence of effective mental health facilities, practitioners, treatments and medications for treating the mentally ill and – especially – those who have become so through their use of street drugs.

    Want to see what I’m talking about? Ask for a ride-along with an SJPD officer or sergeant and ask him or her to take you to some of the board and care facilities in downtown San Jose. They’ll know what you’re talking about, and what will see you will be appalling – at least if you have any sense of decency and heart. It turned my stomach every time I had to deal with it, and I defy anyone to explain how too many of these patients are in any way better off in a board and care home instead of a professionally-operated institutional facility. My opinion: there are too many board and care facilities which, individually, house too many patients, with too few professional staff and too little experience treating the mentally ill, and there is an appalling lack of oversight of these facilities and all of it paid for – at exorbitant expense – by taxpayer dollars.

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