Santa Clara County supervisors call for investigation over sheriff’s jail oversight

Bay Area

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KRON) — Santa Clara County leaders are calling for an investigation into Sheriff Laurie Smith and her office’s handling over several incidents that left inmates dead or severely injured. 

Supervisors Joe Simitan and Otto Lee released an agenda Wednesday ahead of next week’s board meeting with several recommendations — among those is the release of sheriff records surrounding an incident that left a mentally ill inmate with severe head injuries back in 2018. 

“We’ve had  a series of really tragic and costly incidents in our county jail in recent years and no matter what we do, no matter what kind of funding we provide, the problems seem to keep coming,” said Simitian. 

According to the agenda, supervisors are also calling for the state attorney general to look into a “pattern of unconstitutional corrections conduct and/or civil rights violations and/or other violations of state and federal law.”

In addition, they’re requesting investigations by the Fair Political Practices Commission and civil grand jury. 

“We’ve just gotten to the point where had to say this has to stop, there has to be a change in the management, leadership, and organizational culture,” said Simitian. 

“And that means we have to go straight to the top and that’s the sheriff who runs our county jails and say this just isn’t acceptable. We can’t live with this. It’s literally costing lives and not just millions or tens of millions but hundreds of millions of dollars.”

For years, the sheriff’s oversight of county jails has been in question  — dating back to at least 2015, when a separate mentally ill inmate named Michael Tyree was beaten to death by three correctional officers. 

Those offiercers were later convicted of murder and ended up costing the county $3.6 million to settle the familys excessive force lawsuit. 

Michael Tyree

“Those are funds that can’t be spent on housing or health care or other great needs in the community,” said Simitian. 

Simitian also wants a 19-page county report into a 2018 prison transport incident. 

The incident left Andrew Hogan, another mentally ill man, with a severe brain injury after he hit his head against a jail van wall while being transported from the County’s Elmwood correctional facility to the Main Jail. 

Simitian tells KRON4 the county is unaware of any disciplinary actions taken against the officers who transported Hogan. 

The county would end up settling the case for more than $10 million. 

According to the agenda, the watch commander on duty during the incident was promoted to captain and received a pay increase soon after. 

“The jail has made some significant improvements during the life of the consent decree,” said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office, which monitors the sheriff’s jail oversight. 

“Part of the problem is that this all can’t be blamed on the sheriff, some of these problems are the result of the county not moving on the requests made by the sheriff’s staff to improve conditions.” 

In addition, supervisors cite two separate incidents at the jails that involve inmates with mental health issues. 

Supervisors say inmate Martin Nunez who was suffering from “psychiatric distress” ran head-first into his cell door, consequently injuring his spine.

Nunez filed a lawsuit against the county this year and states he did not receive medical attention for an extended period of time and was moved roughly by correctional officers, which further injured his spine. 

Specter says part of the problem is placing mentally ill individuals in jail instead of getting the proper medical treatment and the extended period of time it takes to fully incorporate recommended improvements.

“They [the sheriff’s office] seem willing to and they want to improve the conditions in the jail,” said Specter. 

 “But for reasons that I can’t really explain because I am not on the inside, I’m on the outside, a lot of improvements just take forever.”

Sheriff Smith’s office tells KRON4 in a statement that the jails suffer from several challenges such as understaffing which make it “difficult to operate in a safe and secure manner,” and “since 2019, the sheriff’s office has reduced 266 positions, 2,045 employees to 1,779 employees.”

In both cases involving Nunez and Hogan, Sheriff Smith says both were in custody for minor charges and should have been placed in treatment facilities, not a jail.” 

Sheriff Smith added “I have long been a proponent of mental health treatment for individuals suffering from mental illness, not incarcerating them in a jail environment.”

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