SAN JOSE -- The Santa Clara County civil grand jury released a report on Thursday that cites lax oversight, outdated policies, short staffing and a lack of training as factors that may have contributed to the beating death of a mentally ill inmate last August.
The grand jury -- a civil watchdog panel whose investigative oversight includes examining jails -- specifically honed in on what's going on related to mentally ill inmates in the wake of Michael Tyree's death, allegedly at the hands of three guards.
Since the grand jury began its work in late October, the county has convened two special task forces related to jail reform: One wrapped up its six-month term in March while the other -- which has a goal of keeping mentally ill offenders out of jail in the first place -- is expected to conclude in December.
In addition, the National Institute of Corrections analyzed jail conditions and issued a report in April, and Sheriff Laurie Smith, whose officers run the jails, released her own laundry list of reforms in March.
The grand jury report largely bolstered previous findings. For example, it asserted that the "vast majority" of personnel in and out of the jails who work with the mentally ill are "sincere and professional" and "doing their best to perform a difficult job during this very challenging time."
But it added that the "lack of supervision and observation by superiors could have contributed" to Tyree's death, as well as the "difficult nature of the job, long hours, insufficient staffing levels and limited training of Custody Bureau personnel in dealing with mentally ill inmates."
The grand jury report also echoed the National Institute of Corrections sentiment that the origins of the problems stem from a history of budgetary challenges and cutbacks. It stated that there's a different population within the jail than what the facility was designed for, due both to state prison system changes that have called for counties to house lesser offenders and county lockups becoming "warehouses for the mentally ill."
Among the grand jury's specific findings that it recommended the county fix:
Due to low staffing, correctional deputies typically work alone in inmate housing areas, making it "extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the correctional deputies to fulfill their duties and responsibilities."
Watch commanders are not on-site at all times, and there are not enough sergeants to provide sufficient coaching and support where needed.
The number of mental health clinicians is insufficient to adequately address mentally ill inmates' needs.
County officials by law must respond to the findings and recommendations in writing within 90 days.
County Executive Jeff Smith said there weren't any surprises in the report and that it covered matters that the county is moving to address.
The report stated that while the county is in "reactive mode," and changes are being made, the county was "unable to identify overall plans or priorities."
Smith disagreed with that assessment.
"We've created a different intake system, and teams to respond to requests for mental health evaluation," he said. "We've hired new psychiatric and behavioral health teams. I think we're doing a lot, and it's considerably different than it was before. We already are getting better results."
The report was considerably milder in tone than previous analyses, which were aimed more generally at the workings of the jail, although inclusive of mental health concerns. The most comprehensive -- and most scathing -- was the report from the civilian-led Blue Ribbon Commission on Improving Custody Operations, which issued 121 recommendations that included maintaining adequate staffing, the creation of an ombudsman's office and detailed steps to improve mental health care.
It also called on the Board of Supervisors to seize control of the jails from Smith, citing a broken grievance process, lack of transparency and fear of retaliation among inmates and correctional officers.
Smith's reform plan laid out 13 goals, including ramping up training to help guards cope with a jail population that has more serious offenders as well as mentally ill inmates, improving inmate education programs and increasing minimum qualifications and background checks for prospective guards.
Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. James Jensen said Friday that since last year, the department has "aggressively undergone a process to improve all aspects of our jail operations to protect the safety of our inmates, staff and visitors."
"We have already begun implementing solutions to many of the issues identified in the civil grand jury's report and will continue to implement our reform plan for custody operations," he said. "Additionally, we're working with other departments and the Board of Supervisors on areas where we need additional funding and cooperation between departments."
Saturday, June 25, 2016
[Santa Clara County] Grand jury report on mentally ill in jails cites several problems
June 24, 2016
The Mercury News
By Eric Kurhi