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Calif. county agrees to spend $250M to improve jail conditions

The county has lessened solitary confinement, reduced COs’ use of force and improved its mental health facilities

By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY, Calif. — Accused of ignoring the needs of physically and mentally ill and suicidal inmates at its jails, Contra Costa County has agreed to a settlement that requires $250 million in spending over five years to increase staffing and improve health care.

The lawsuit was filed by inmates who cited criticism of jail conditions by medical experts hired by the county during negotiations over the case. One expert said the jails took far too long to assess the health of new inmates and had “extremely dangerous” procedures for drug and alcohol treatment. Another criticized the jails’ mental health system, and a third expert said the jails lacked adequate cells or treatment for potentially suicidal inmates and had a high suicide rate.

The county has about 785 inmates at its main jail in Martinez, the West County Detention Facility in Richmond and a small facility in Clayton. The figure is several hundred below the total before the coronavirus outbreak prompted state and local officials to limit pretrial incarceration.

Since inmate advocates started looking into jail operations in 2015, the county has substantially lessened solitary confinement, reduced guards’ use of force and improved its mental health facilities, said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office, which filed the suit. But he said medical and mental health care at the jails remains inadequate and the suicide rate is still too high.

One 38-year-old plaintiff, held in jail while awaiting trial, said in the suit that he had injuries that made walking extremely painful, but guards denied him use of a cane for three months and also refused to place him in a ground-floor cell or a lower bunk. A 36-year-old plaintiff with mental illness, also held pretrial, said he repeatedly pressed the “emergency medical” button in his cell, but guards told him to stop and refused to take him to medical staff for help.

Specter said the five-year settlement reached Thursday requires the county to spend about $43 million a year on additional staff and services to improve medical and mental health care at the jails, and a one-time $43 million expenditure for facility improvements. He said the county might be able to get the state to cover some of the costs. Medical experts and the plaintiffs’ lawyers will inspect the jails every six months and report findings to a judge.

“These changes will save countless lives, reduce the suffering of people confined in the jails and increase public safety,” said Corene Kendrick, another Prison Law Office attorney.

Sheriff David Livingston’s office did not respond to a request for comment.


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