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DOJ investigation finds constitutional violations at SLO Co. Jail

Posted at 3:54 PM, Aug 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-31 22:45:21-04

Constitutional violations were reportedly found at the San Luis Obispo County Jail following an independent investigation launched in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The findings announced Tuesday state, “The Justice Department concluded that there is reason to believe that the practices at the jail violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).”

The violations reportedly include failing to provide constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners, violating the constitutional rights of prisoners with serious mental illness through its prolonged use of restrictive housing and violating the rights of prisoners through the use of excessive force, according to a DOJ press release, which adds that ADA violations were also found by the jail denying prisoners with mental health disabilities access to services, programs and activities.

The investigation began following the deaths of several inmates, but county officials said it was not focusing on any single event.

The report is calling on the jail to make changes.

The DOJ says the jail was notified of the findings and supporting facts along with the necessary measures needed to address them.

“Our Constitution guarantees that all people held in jails and prisons across our country are treated humanely, and that includes providing access to necessary medical and mental health care,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in a press release. “After a comprehensive investigation, we found that the San Luis Obispo Jail harms the people it incarcerates by subjecting them to excessive force and by failing to provide adequate medical and mental health care. The Justice Department hopes to continue to work with the jail to resolve these systemic problems.”

Since the death of inmate Andrew Holland, who passed away after being confined in a restraint chair for nearly two days in 2017, several changes have been made at the jail, including the hiring of a new Chief Medical Officer, contracting out medical and mental health services, and the pending opening of a mental health unit.

In 2017, San Luis Obispo County settled a lawsuit over Holland’s death for $5 million.

His death, and the death of another inmate a few months later, prompted the sheriff to call for an independent FBI investigation into the possibility of civil rights violations at his own jail.

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office says it recognize the issues and concerns brought forth in the DOJ report, but adds that it fails to take into account the “many remedial measures undertaken by the Sheriff’s Office since 2018 when the investigation began.”

The measures, according to the sheriff’s office, include:

1. Named an “Innovator County” for the Stepping Up Initiative for work in reducing the number of days individuals with serious mental illness are in County Jail.

2. Started a Jail Based Competency Treatment Program to restore patients with serious mental illness to competency to avoid long Department of State Hospital wait times.

3. Created the Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) and Kansas Max Housing Unit which provide dedicated space to treat and house patients with special needs, including chronic medical and mental health problems.

4. Expanded medical, mental health, and dental care under Wellpath, a correctional health care company, now in year 3 of its contract with San Luis Obispo County.

5. Progressing ahead of schedule with Americans with Disabilities Act Improvements per a recent settlement agreement.

6. Initiated a Compliance Unit including the Chief Medical Officer position and increased staffing.

7. Implemented a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training among other tactical and administrative topics for all staff.

The sheriff’s office also says the report claims some inmates were subjected to an excessive use of force.

“Jail leadership takes complaints seriously. Any allegation of inappropriate force has been investigated by the Professional Standards Unit and any instances of sustained complaints have resulted in disciplinary action, up to and including termination,” according to a sheriff’s office press release following the DOJ’s findings.

"The Sheriff's Office has worked cooperatively with the Department of Justice over the past 3 years to investigate deficiencies and determine appropriate improvements to ensure our Jail facility is fully compliant with federal law," said Sheriff Parkinson. "We are pleased with our progress so far and will continue to work diligently to provide a safe and secure Jail facility.”