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California Takes a First Step Toward Improving Its Failing County Jails

After an investigation by McClatchy and ProPublica, a state oversight agency is proposing tougher scrutiny and consequences for dangerous conditions in California’s county jails.

This article was produced in partnership with The Sacramento Bee, which was a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network in 2019.

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California’s county jails would face greater scrutiny and potentially tougher consequences for poor conditions inside their cells under a series of proposed changes unveiled by a state oversight agency last week.

Specifically, the Board of State and Community Corrections plans to publicize details about uncorrected violations in jails and summon elected county sheriffs who delay reforms or rebuff the oversight agency.

The changes are in response to a yearlong investigation by McClatchy and ProPublica that exposed dangerous conditions in county jails and lagging enforcement of the state’s standards. In his state of the state speech last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom demanded improved jail oversight and transparency from the board, which oversees local lockups.

The updates are on top of a more sweeping review by a committee of the board that could place new rules on the use of solitary confinement.

“We certainly know the urgency that the governor has in terms of drawing a line in the sand and moving on it,” said Linda Penner, chair of the state corrections board.

The community corrections board was created to help oversee changes brought on by 2011’s prison realignment, which diverted thousands of offenders from unconstitutionally overcrowded state prisons to county jails. While board officials have no legal authority to force jails into compliance, officials say increased transparency about the inspections and the ability to force sheriffs to publicly explain decisions are steps they can take immediately.

McClatchy and ProPublica’s reporting, which has been cited in board meetings, showed how state inspectors documented violations but sometimes faced months of resistance from sheriffs who disagreed with their findings.

In Kern County, for example, the sheriff made potentially suicidal inmates sleep on yoga mats while locked in rubberized rooms with nothing but a grate in the floor for bodily fluids. An inspector cited the jail for violating minimum bedding requirements, but the sheriff rejected the finding and continued buying the yoga mats.

The Kern County jails stopped issuing yoga mats as mattresses shortly after reporters asked questions last year. The sheriff’s office said its isolation practices save lives, removing hazards and increasing monitoring of vulnerable inmates.

Under the proposal outlined Thursday, inspectors would immediately present any violations they find to local jail administrators and offer guidance to help bring facilities into compliance.

“A clock of sorts will begin,” said Allison Ganter, the board’s deputy director overseeing the inspection team.

Anything not fixed after a designated timeline will then be publicly posted online and discussed during board meetings, at which point officials will decide whether to require the sheriff to explain in person the reason for the continued failures.

It’s unclear whether new staff or resources will be assigned to help implement the changes.

The changes are a welcome start, some justice reform advocates say, but they still view the process as deeply flawed.

“We need to have a more robust system of the inspection process and the oversight that the BSCC can administer,” said Renee Menart, with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates for justice system reforms. “It doesn’t appear at this point that minimum changes would fully address community concerns.”

The board will now seek public input. The goal is to implement revisions by July 1, when a new round of jail inspections begins.

Separately, a group within the jail oversight agency is revising the minimum standards, called Title 15, that inspectors use to evaluate jails. Notes from a recent meeting indicate potential changes are under consideration for how jails use solitary confinement and administer mental health care treatment to inmates.

“Certainly we would applaud the efforts to bring Title 15 standards to make them reflect national best practices,” said Margot Mendelson, an attorney with the Berkeley, California-based Prison Law Office. “But we have a very long way to go in that regard.”

The board isn’t expected to consider these additional changes until later this year.

Additional Oversight of Realignment Funds

California lawmakers are also moving ahead with plans to demand increased accountability from local sheriffs’ offices.

On Thursday, Assembly Member Sydney Kamlager, D-Los Angeles, said she would demand an audit of several sheriffs’ offices’ use of state money intended to offset the costs of the 2011 realignment changes.

Since 2011, California has sent more than $8 billion to counties to cover the increased local costs. The California Constitution prohibits county officials from using that money to cut their own costs elsewhere. But lax spending rules and limited scrutiny from both state and county officials have allowed just that, McClatchy and ProPublica reported in December.

Though local governments routinely move money from one law enforcement purpose to another, doing so with realignment funds may violate state law.

Kamlager wants audits in Fresno, Los Angeles and Alameda counties. She picked those three, she said, because of news reporting into each: inmate deaths in Fresno, budget battles in Los Angeles and ongoing audit demands in Alameda.

“I want to know why we’re not figuring out how to use those dollars more effectively around mental health support in the facilities,” Kamlager said in an interview Friday. “If we had the resources at the state auditor’s office, we would have asked for many more.”

Jason Pohl reports on criminal justice for The Sacramento Bee. He has reported since 2011 on public safety, mental health and disasters for newspapers in Colorado and Arizona.

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Ryan Gabrielson

Ryan Gabrielson is a reporter for ProPublica covering the U.S. justice system.

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