SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — A group tasked with evaluating Santa Clara County jails presented the board of supervisors with more than 120 recommendations Tuesday and emphasized immediate action in adopting their proposals.
Each recommendation will help improve custody operations to create a safe environment for inmates and correctional officers, said retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell during today’s board meeting in San Jose.
Cordell is chairwoman of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Improving Custody Operations, which was formed in response to the late August death of 31-year-old Michael Tyree, a mentally ill inmate who was held in the Main Jail’s sixth floor in San Jose.
Three correctional deputies have been charged with Tyree’s murder and will be put on trial.
The commission found a need for “major overhaul” in the inmate grievance and complaint process, transparency in the disciplinary system for correctional officers and changes in the inmate welfare fund, Cordell said.
The 26-member commission appointed by board President Dave Cortese was left with more questions than answers after its 10 public meetings between November and March, Cordell said.
The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, which is responsible for running the jails, on many occasions provided documents that were not requested or fully understood by the commission, she said.
Cordell showed the board a binder filled with documents that were “dumped” on the commission the day of or one to two days before a meeting, which didn’t provide members enough time to review the information, Cordell said.
The sheriff’s office also didn’t produce records surrounding complaints that alleged inmates were injured while in custody along with the outcomes and any monetary settlements reached in the claims, she said.
Cordell also called out the lack of attendance by mental health professionals at the meetings. Many of the issues the commission reviewed had overlaps with mental health, which wasn’t their main focus because the county contracted with Sabot Consulting to assess jail health care services.
The commission is recommending appointment of an inspector general role for the jails to provide independent oversight and change in leadership over custody operations, Cordell said.
She compared the jail’s leadership to a plane on a long descent, crashing when Tyree was murdered.
“While you might repair the jails and come up with a new and better operation, you still have a poor pilot,” she said.
The inspector general’s role could be similar to that of the San Jose independent police auditor, a role Cordell served in from 2010 until last year, which reviewed probes into police misconduct but didn’t have investigatory powers.
The commission also paid Oakland-based civil rights consultant Aaron Zisser to compile a report reviewing the inmate grievance and complaint process, Cordell said.
The commission also sought help from the San Francisco law firm Moscone Emblidge & Otis, which conducted interviews with 944 inmates, eight family members of inmates and 33 correctional officers on issues surrounding the jail.
The inmates and their family members gave consistent accounts that were “stunning and disturbing,” Cordell said.
“As disconcerting was the reluctance of correctional officers far more than inmates to come forward and speak with the attorneys for fear of retaliation,” she said.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley, who was a member of the commission, called on the board to prioritize changes that will impact mentally ill inmates, who suffer a greater “stigma” and lack treatment while incarcerated.
Christine Clifford, a family member of an inmate and commission member, called on the board to keep involving the community in its future actions.
The board unanimously approved sending the commission’s report to the Finance and Government Operations Committee under a motion by Supervisor Cindy Chavez.
Supervisor Joe Simitian, chairman of the committee, said there will need to be multiple special meetings focused on reviewing each commission recommendation.
“We have to take our time and do it right if these changes are going to be real and going to be meaningful,” Simitian said.
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