Disabled Prisoners Sue Over Santa Barbara County Jail Conditions

One plaintiff, Maria Tracy, lost the vision in her right eye as a result of inadequate medical care, while 52-year-old Raymond Herrera died inside in 2015 while serving a ten-day sentence because staff didn't give him his anti-seizure medications and he sustained a fatal internal injury during a seizure.

This is far from the only California jail with substandard conditions, and across the country, outdated, understaffed facilities like this one are commonplace. Aaron Lambert-Pool/Getty Images

Staff and those inside alike call Santa Barbara County Jail the “Franken-jail”: It’s an understaffed, lumbering, outdated maze of grim cells that warehouses those who run afoul of the sheriff’s department. Once people enter the facility, they’re kept in conditions that even the sheriff himself has admitted are “disgraceful, embarrassing and unacceptable for Santa Barbara County.” Among those who suffer the most in this environment are disabled people, like wheelchair users who can’t use the showers to bathe, people with mental illness who are denied medication, and diabetics who receive the wrong kind of insulin.

Some of those inmates are fighting back. On December 6, the advocacy group Disability Rights California (DRC)along with co-counsel from the Prison Law Office and King & Spalding, LLCfiled suit in California district court against the County of Santa Barbara and its Sheriff’s Office on behalf of five disabled plaintiffs. They’re seeking class-action certification in a complaint that describes horrific conditions, arguing that the county and the sheriff must take action to better serve all inmates, particularly those from the disability community. The complaint is part of DRC’s larger work on jail and prison advocacy in California, and one that highlights the inadequate enviornments in jailhouses, where people may spend days, weeks, months, or even years awaiting trial and serving short sentences.

The prison-industrial complex in the United States houses a disproportionately large number of disabled people; people in state and federal prisons are three times as likely to be disabled, while those in jails are four times as likely. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the penal system is one of the largest providers of mental health care. This is, in part, because in the United States, the carceral framework effectively criminalizes disability, particularly cognitive and intellectual disabilities and mental illness, and especially among people of color. Around the country, the lack of community services often turns law enforcement into the first point of contact for mentally ill people in crisis.

“Right now,” said Aaron Fischer, litigation counsel at Disability Rights California, “the only response [to someone in crisis] is [to] call law enforcement. It becomes a law enforcement response. As soon as somebody gets arrested and charged, they’re thrown into this system. But we know that putting someone with mental illness in the jail setting is bad for mental health, dangerous for their physical safety and well-being, and doesn’t serve the interests of the public.”

Within the system, medical and psychiatric care are often substandard, as are living conditions. Such is the case, the suit claims, in Santa Barbara County Jail. The suit builds on the findings in a report published by DRC after its investigation of the facility in 2015. DRC identified grotesquely overcrowded conditions: Inmates are housed in a warren of cells, with some sleeping on the floor in specialized plastic cots known as “boats.” In response to the DRC report, the Santa Barbara Grand Jury took a closer look at jail conditions and found the facility “outdated and inefficient.” This is one reason the county is actually building a new jail facility—but it will house only a fraction of those currently living in the main one, which will continue operations. While the inmate load is likely to be reduced, the main jail already operates consistently over capacity—at around 120 percent—and the systemic problems with it will remain an issue, plaintiffs say, no matter how many people are housed there.

Most of the facility, plaintiffs say, fails to meet modern standards for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility. The federal law states that disabled people are entitled to integration and a least restrictive setting in jails as everywhere else, but that’s not what they receive in Santa Barbara. For example, the facility lacks an effective system for identifying and tracking the needs of disabled inmates, with outdated and lost medical records complicating treatment.

The suit also argues that inmates are subjected to dangerous solitary confinement, including in “Safety Cells”: barren rooms with a hole in the floor for a toilet. Solitary confinement is hazardous for everyone, but particularly for people with mental health conditions, which can be exacerbated by long stays without human contact.

Fischer noted in an interview that mentally ill prisoners can’t even access confidential mental health care, because the jail does not provide mental health staff confidential space to meet with their patients. Often, they must speak with their patients through the cell door.

According to the complaint, such serious shortcomings in medical and psychiatric care at the jail have led to significant injury—and in some cases, deaths. One plaintiff, Maria Tracy, lost the vision in her right eye as a result of inadequate medical care, while 52-year-old Raymond Herrera died inside in 2015 while serving a ten-day sentence because staff didn’t give him his anti-seizure medications and he sustained a fatal internal injury during a seizure. A year later, another man, Hector Higareda, a 38-year-old man, committed suicide in solitary confinement, in a cell the suit charges was unsafe for people with suicidal ideation. Plaintiff Clay Murray experienced withdrawal symptoms after the jail abruptly stopped his supply of gabapentin, a drug used to treat seizures and nerve pain, and the complaint notes that he wasn’t alone.

The suit asserts that the unhealthy conditions at the jail violate the Eighth Amendment, which bars “cruel and unusual punishment,” and further argues that it also violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, as many people inside haven’t been convicted and are being held before trial. These causes of action apply to everyone behind bars at the jail, but the complaint also specifically cites the ADA, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, including unequal access to facilities and activities. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which among other things requires “reasonable accommodations” for disabled people, is also at issue—as, for example, in instances where prisoners are denied privacy to meet with mental health professionals.

“This is an old, dilapidated, underresourced jail,” explained Fischer, who says DRC hopes the suit will result in a settlement that addresses the problems that are putting prisoners at serious risk of harm. Whether a settlement can result in a concrete commitment of funds remains to be seen, however—and that problem can’t be solved by the sheriff’s office alone. The grand jury noted that “it will be difficult to find the funds needed to accomplish all the projects required to meet the current Federal and State jail standards and regulations.” Without resources, it’s impossible to renovate or better staff the facility, two things that would be necessary to reduce danger for those inside.

The cost isn’t the only issue at hand here, though. Fischer pointed out that the suit is also an opportunity to “take a hard look at everybody who’s currently incarcerated; is it necessary for them to be in custody? Is it appropriate? The answer for a lot of people at Santa Barbara County Jail is ‘no.'” In a report released this month, the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission explored this very issue. The commission noted that dismantling state mental health facilities in the 1980s without addressing the need for psychiatric services created a mental health crisis. It recommends improving community resources, using crisis teams, and exploring restorative services to keep people from languishing in jail when they’re deemed incompetent to stand trial. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown sits on the commission; “He gets it as a concept,” says Fischer, “he just needs the resources.”

It’s also significant that over half of inmates at the facility have utilized the services at the county’s Department of Behavioral Wellness before entering jail, suggesting a breakdown is occurring in the systems—including community health care—that should ideally keep mentally ill people accessing and adhering to treatment.

The outcome of a successful settlement could change the way services are provided before people come into contact with the jail, in the hopes of keeping them in their communities; a measure that will be less costly, more humane, and more effective for managing mental health conditions. More funding for community-based health care that averts mental health crises could be beneficial, as could a focus on de-escalation and referral to services rather than imprisonment. This would also reduce the load on the jail, which will still need to increase staffing and address shortcomings in its facilities. Cooperation from the sheriff’s office makes Fischer optimistic that the county is ready and willing to work on the problems identified, improving conditions in the facility for inmates present and future.

The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to Rewire‘s request for comment. In a statement, Sheriff Brown said: “The Board [of Supervisors] and I have worked collaboratively to arrive at solutions designed to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates currently housed in the main jail. We all recognize the need to improve our county jail system and are committed to working with class counsel and the courts to make improvements.”

This is far from the only California facility with substandard conditions, and across the country, outdated, understaffed facilities like this one are commonplace. California’s history of prison overcrowding highlights that this is not just an issue of conditions, but whether people should be incarcerated at all—a question beyond the scope of this particular suit that should nonetheless lie at the heart of conversations about jail and prison reform.

Many of the remedies sought in this suit, though, will benefit all inmates, regardless of disability status. And given that “approximately 40 percent of jail prisoners have one or more disabilities,” according to the federal government, one thing is clear: There is no prison justice without disability justice.