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San Luis Obispo County responds to DOJ findings of constitutional violations at SLO County Jail

Posted at 4:20 PM, Oct 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-14 19:20:02-04

San Luis Obispo County attorneys and Sheriff Ian Parkinson are responding to a recent U.S. Department of Justice investigation. The independent investigation was launched in 2018 after the deaths of several inmates. The findings, announced in August, stated, “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 included 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 add the ADA violations were also found by the jail denying prisoners with mental health disabilities access to services, programs and activities.

In a letter released this week, San Luis Obispo County Counsel Rita Neal responded saying the, “report is stale, ignores current protocols, policies, and practices, and conflicts with the very statements made by your onsite investigative team.”

The sharply worded letter goes on to say, “The County disputes the DOJ has established patterns or practices equating to constitutional violations. The County was given no opportunity to explain or provide further information regarding the inmate cases (healthcare/use of force/restrictive housing) prior to the Report being issued.”

In addition, the county provided a supplemental document prepared by the Sheriff’s Office responding to some of the cases highlighted in the DOJ investigation. It also outlined what the County says are 400+ policy changes that have been implemented, and many corrective actions that have been taken. The supplemental document was 30+ pages long.

The response letter prepared by Neal, says, “The public funds expended by the DOJ in this investigation could have funded new jail facilities, significantly increased medical and mental health services and eliminated restrictive housing. Instead, substantial resources were diverted on both sides to prosecute and defend allegations rather than collaboratively initiate solutions.”

Some of the changes highlighted in the Sheriff’s response include the establishment of the sheriff’s mental health task force, hiring a chief medical officer for the jail and contracting with Wellpath for enhanced medical and behavioral health offerings.

In an earlier response to the DOJ investigation, Sheriff Parkinson wrote, “The Sheriff’s Office has worked cooperatively with the Department of Justice over the past three years to investigate deficiencies and determine appropriate improvements to ensure our Jail facility is fully compliant with federal law. We are pleased with our progress so far and will continue to work diligently to provide a safe and secure jail facility.”

San Luis Obispo County was recently named an “Innovator County” for the Stepping Up Initiative for work in reducing the number of days individuals with serious mental illness are in the County Jail.