The Santa Barbara County Jail
Paul Wellman (file)

In a long-awaited action, a criminal justice advocacy group filed a class-action lawsuit against the Santa Barbara County Jail last week. Disability Rights California, a state-mandated organization, alleged jail staff provided “inhumane” and “unsanitary” living conditions for inmates. At least 10 people, many with serious health issues, have died in the jail in the last six years, the lawsuit states.

A report released by Disability Rights in February 2016 found Santa Barbara inmates spent excessive time in solitary confinement, had limited access to mental-health medication, did not receive responses to various requests, and had to sleep on the floor, among other troubling issues. The findings came after an exhaustive, months-long investigation, the first to take place in the Santa Barbara County Jail in eight years. Now, Disability Rights claims those problems have not been fixed.

In an unconventional move, the advocacy organization and Sheriff Bill Brown issued a joint press release. Disability Rights said Brown and his jail staff have been fully cooperative with the investigation, and he has hired consultants to assess conditions and provide recommendations. Brown said in the statement that the Sheriff’s Office “takes seriously the treatment of all inmates, especially the most vulnerable” and remains committed to proper treatment and care of inmates.

Brown has long blamed similar accusations on the jail’s aging, run-down infrastructure. In addition, the state’s realignment initiative, which moved state prisoners to county jails, has “brought a different category of inmate into the jail facility from what the facility was designed to hold,” he said in the press release. The jail’s average population hovers at 120 percent of capacity, the lawsuit states.

Brown also has pointed to the Northern Branch Jail, now under construction and expected to open in 2019, to alleviate some of these problems. But when it opens, the main jail will remain operating.

Disability Rights has won similar legal battles against Los Angeles and Fresno counties. The Santa Barbara litigation, filed on behalf of five inmates, seeks to change practices surrounding health care in the jail “as well as attorneys’ fees and costs under applicable law.”

“This is a county jail that has clearly been dealing with overcrowding, insufficient staffing, and crumbling infrastructure for years,” said attorney Joshua Toll, representing Disability Rights California, “and it is our hope that this case will lead to significant reforms.”


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