The latest confrontation between Santa Barbara County supervisors and Sheriff Bill Brown got to the heart of the beef between him and the electeds: trust or lack of it. Last fall, the supervisors ordered a new grievance oversight coordinator for the county jail to placate concerns about the health-care provider, Corizon Health Inc. But this week the supes were taken aback to hear that Brown filled the position with retired custody lieutenant Mark Mahurin. “You can’t audit your own taxes,” said Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, just recently Brown’s sole supporter on the dais.
The supervisors’ shared frustration does not change anything in practical terms — California law gives sheriffs exclusive authority over county jails. But the hearing functioned as another kerfuffle between the board and Brown.
Specifically, the supervisors contended hiring a former custody lieutenant fails to address the reason they ordered Brown to hire a coordinator in the first place — to address public concern about the jail’s health care; a former custody lieutenant might be less likely to fault the department, they said.
But Undersheriff Barney Melekian maintained Mahurin has a keen knowledge of the inner workings of the jail. What’s more, Melekian said, such a position does not exist anywhere else in California — and only at a few large prisons nationwide. The hiring of Mahurin can create the position in a timely manner, he added.
Mahurin — who has worked part-time at the Day Reporting Center since he retired from working for 31 years in the jail— will oversee the current grievance process. In the last two years, custody personnel received 722 medical or mental-health-related complaints, according to Sheriff’s Office staff. That amount, Brown contended, is less than half of one percent of all inmates who cycled through the jail. Custody personnel must respond within 15 days; they have another 15 days if an inmate submits an appeal.
The existing grievance process works alongside volunteer ombudsmen, who usually speak to inmates at their behest through Plexiglas over a telephone for an average of 30 minutes on Thursday mornings. These volunteers report to the Los Angeles chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The Santa Barbara chapter recently closed its doors after challenges brewed for some time.
Suzanne Riordan, a mental-health advocate with Families ACT!, stressed the lack of local oversight is problematic. “What the ACLU is hearing is not being reported to the public,” she said. “The sheriff could end [the program] at any time,” she added. “He has in the past.” In fact, Brown put the ombuds program temporarily on hold amid controversy surrounding Corizon.
Riordan also called for the position to be filled by a civilian. Other advocates suggested a public defender or person who had been incarcerated. “This is a profound situation,” Riordan said. “There are inadequate services for people who end up behind bars.”
Before the hearing concluded, Supervisor Salud Carbajal called Brown to the podium: “In light of what you’ve heard, can you offer us an additional model?” he asked. Brown’s answer was no. He said the Sheriff’s Office was recently scrutinized by Disability Rights California, a group that audits county jails. The findings for Santa Barbara County Jail, which are expected to be grim, have been anticipated for months. As of press time, they were not available.
Brown further argued hiring a person unaccustomed to jail culture could have its own potential problems. “Let’s face it. There are complaints and grievances about every aspect of county government,” he said. “I believe [Mahurin] needs to be given a chance.” The process will allow for community input from advocacy groups such as Families ACT. “[That] makes us virtually more transparent than any other department,” he said.
“It feels like this ship has already sailed,” Supervisor Janet Wolf said in closing remarks. “I wish this wasn’t where we are right now.” The sheriff will return to the board in six months with an updated grievance policy, which should have a flow chart, specific time frames, and a quarterly report to the supervisors.