Sacramento sheriff reverses stance, agrees to provide warm clothing to inmates
The reversal comes one day after the county had rejected a plea from Prison Law Office advocates to provide warmer clothing
By Sam Stanton
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Sacramento Sheriff Jim Cooper has reversed his position on providing cold-weather gear to jail inmates, with the county informing advocates late Tuesday that the sheriff will use inmate welfare funds to buy warm clothing for all inmates, advocates say.
The reversal comes one day after The Sacramento Bee reported that the county had rejected a plea from Prison Law Office advocates to provide warmer clothing at the Sacramento County Main Jail and Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, where inmates were provided only short-sleeve T-shirts during recent winter storms in the region.
Patrick Booth, a staff attorney for the Prison Law Office that advocates for the rights of inmates, said in an email statement late Tuesday that the sheriff had agreed to their request for more appropriate clothing for jail inmates.
“We are pleased that the sheriff has reversed his position and affirmed his office’s commitment to meeting the needs of people incarcerated in the Sacramento County Jails,” Booth wrote in an email statement to The Bee.
The Prison Law Office forwarded an email from Sacramento Deputy County Counsel Rick Heyer confirming the sheriff planned to use money from the $14 million inmate welfare fund to provide the clothing.
“The sheriff has agreed to purchase cold weather clothing for all inmates using funds from the Inmate Welfare Fund,” the email stated. “I will provide further information in the next few days as I learn the details of this purchase.”
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Amar Gandhi did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.
Gandhi previously had declined to comment, and on Monday after The Bee reported on the issue cited surveys that he said showed “most measured temperatures on housing floors (in the jail) were 70 degrees or higher.”
The Prison Law Office had been urging the county for weeks to provide more appropriate winter clothing for inmates, with Booth writing to officials Feb. 6 that jail-issue clothing consisted only of one short-sleeve T-shirt, a pair of pants, a pair of socks and one or two pair of underwear.
Inmates were not provided with long-sleeve shirts, sweatshirts or jackets, leaving many feeling “extremely cold” and refusing to go outside for recreation because of the weather conditions, Booth wrote.
“People are forced to choose between extended periods of isolation in their cells or being outside on a cold, concrete recreation yard with no sweatshirt, no long-sleeve shirt, and no undershirt,” Booth wrote in a letter to the county that warned advocates may pursue the matter in federal court, where conditions in the jails for some disabled inmates are governed by a consent decree.
The county responded last Friday to the request by writing that issuing cold-weather gear to inmates “is unwarranted” and that temperatures in the downtown jail are monitored and measured at 67.5 degrees or above.
“SSO recognizes that on a few days per year, the temperature outside the facilities may not be warm enough for extended outdoor recreation,” Heyer wrote then. “However, these are a relative few days in the year.”
Heyer wrote that most areas of the jails are temperature controlled and that temperature readings at the main jail showed “that all floors have temperature of at least 67.5,” with some units where the temperature was measured at 70 degrees.
But the Prison Law Office noted that other agencies, including the state prison system, provide cold-weather clothing to inmates, and that complaints about the lack of such gear in Sacramento was widespread.
“When we visited the Main Jail on January 12, 2023, we heard dozens of reports throughout the facility, from both staff and incarcerated people, that people forego their outdoor recreation time because they are too cold to go outside in only a T-shirt,” Booth wrote. “For example, Deputy Conley, who works on 3 West, told us that many people are too cold to spend any amount of time in the outdoor recreation space, and he is even cold when working inside the building.
“People in the jail who refuse outdoor time are not offered extra dayroom time to compensate for their lack of out-of-cell time. Instead, they merely receive less time out of their cell.”
Prison Law Office Legal Director Margot Mendelson said Monday that the clothing could be paid for using the inmate welfare fund, which is generated by inmate telephone calls and commissary purchases.
That fund is currently at more than $14 million, according to an email from Heyer to the Prison Law Office, which said that money could be spent improving conditions for inmates in the jails.
“Given the filthy and deprived conditions in the Sacramento County jails, we are hopeful that Sheriff Cooper will prioritize spending these funds to bring the jails closer in line with basic standards of decency,” Booth wrote in a statement to The Bee.