Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith released a long-awaited plan to curb violence and improve conditions at the region's two local jails.
The proposal comes after a series of scandals in the county’s jails, including the alleged murder of a mentally ill inmate at the hands of three guards.
Smith laid out 13 goals, including more training for correctional deputies and more classes for inmates, in a report presented Wednesday to the county’s Public Safety and Justice Committee. She wants to raise the minimum qualifications for prospective corrections deputies to require at least some college credits and criminal justice or mental health expertise. And instead of one lie detector test, she wants two.
The 26-page plan would create permanent independent oversight through a civilian board and inspector general. The civilian committee would include nine members—five picked by the Board of Supervisors and four selected by the commission.
Smith’s proposal comes eight months after mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree’s fatal beating, allegedly at the hands of three jailors. Tyree’s death put the county’s Department of Corrections (DOC) under the microscope, before several arrests and the disclosure of numerous racist texts between correction officers.
The county formed a special commission in September to investigate San Jose’s Main Jail and Elmwood in Milpitas. The Prison Law Office, a nonprofit prison rights watchdog, then filed a class-action lawsuit accusing the county of brutality, overusing solitary confinement and failing to provide adequate medical and mental healthcare for inmates.
In a letter to the public safety subcommittee, Smith and Undersherriff John Hirokawa said many of the reforms in the new plan were set in motion before Tyree’s death. Still, the letter acknowledges, his death was a catalyst to move quicker.
“As you know, our inmate population is changing and we are tasked with safely managing more inmates in need of mental health services and those incarcerated for more serious crimes, with lengthier sentences,” they wrote. “Our custody staff, supervisors, command staff and our facilities must strive to safely and humanely accommodate this changing inmate population.”
The plan would overhaul the way the county classifies inmates. Past reviews of the jail found that the county often overstated an inmate’s security risk, which puts them in an overly restrictive environment. The proposal would also move low-risk and pretrial inmates to a “minimum camp” at Elmwood.
Internal Affairs, which takes inmate complaints about staff, would speed up investigations by expanding staff and improve accountability by publicly posting quarterly reports of all incidents. New software would track trends and help DOC flag misconduct.
Smith has been criticized for being reactive throughout the last year. Earlier this month, as the Mercury News reported, the special jails commission questioned her motives in buying surveillance cameras for the Main Jail out of pocket.
The day after she installed the cameras, an inmate brawl erupted and was captured on video. Commission chair LaDoris Cordell, a retired Superior Court judge and San Jose's former police auditor, suggested the timing seemed a little convenient. The sheriff fired back, criticizing Cordell for calling on an outside consultant investigate the fight.
A week earlier, two reports from outside consultants identified “critical failures” in the jail grievance process. Cordell asked the county to pay for a more in-depth review of the problems highlighted in those reports.