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Grand Jury investigates Santa Cruz County Jail deaths

August 3, 2014

by N.H. Putnam, Sin Barras

Santa Cruz County is seen by many as a model for enlightened jail and prison policies. But last month the Santa Cruz County Grand Jury released a report on the unusual number of deaths in the county jail in 2012 and 2013 titled “Five Deaths in Santa Cruz: An Investigation of In-Custody Deaths.”

Cartoon: Noah Miska

Cartoon: Noah Miska

The Grand Jury found that a lack of after-hours mental health evaluations and failures to follow procedures on the part of jail staff likely contributed to the deaths. The deaths and the report have county residents questioning whether jail is the appropriate solution for drug addiction and mental health problems.

In the mid-1990s, Santa Cruz County was a model site for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a program that is now recognized as a nationwide standard for reducing incarceration of juveniles. In response to a 2004 Santa Cruz Grand Jury report that found crowded and unsafe conditions in the county jail, Santa Cruz expanded several programs designed to provide alternatives to incarceration. These programs have been credited with allowing the county to reduce incarceration rates to significantly below the statewide average.

In the first years after California prison “realignment” legislation (AB 109) in 2011 started shifting state prison populations to county jails, Santa Cruz was one of the counties credited by watchdog groups for presenting realignment plans that relied less on building more jails than on increasing community programs. This year, however, Santa Cruz is one of 48 California counties seeking budgetary approval for more jail construction. Given its history of progressive reforms, many in Santa Cruz were shocked by a cluster of deaths in the county jail and have demanded to know what they mean.

In less than 11 months from August 2012 to July 2013, five people died in the Santa Cruz County Jail. Christy Sanders, 27, died after her lungs collapsed on Aug. 25, 2012. On Oct. 6, Richard Prichard died at the age of 59 of a heart attack. Brant Monnett was 47 when he died of a drug overdose on Nov. 20. Bradley Dreher, 47, and Amanda Sloan, 30, each committed suicide by hanging, Dreher on Jan. 13, 2013 and Sloan on July 17, 2013.

Some had been in custody only for hours, while others had been in for weeks or months. Based on California and nationwide averages, this was more than five times the expected number of deaths for a jail the size of Santa Cruz’s.

Given its history of progressive reforms, many in Santa Cruz were shocked by a cluster of deaths in the county jail and have demanded to know what they mean.

Christy Sanders had been in jail for nearly two weeks for violating parole. According to the Grand Jury’s report, in the week before her death she suffered a seizure, had difficulty breathing and was denied multiple requests to be taken to the hospital.

Brant Monnett was arrested for violating his parole by being in possession of a needle and trying to run from police. He told jail staff that he would be withdrawing from methadone, which lasts much longer in the blood than heroin, and was showing symptoms of overdose the morning after his arrest. The Grand Jury found that he should have been transferred to the hospital or placed in a special observation cell, but was not.

Protesters march against in-custody deaths in Santa Cruz on April 6, 2013. – Photo: Sin Barras

Protesters march against in-custody deaths in Santa Cruz on April 6, 2013. – Photo: Sin Barras

Richard Prichard had been arrested for DUI with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit, but he wasn’t placed in a “sobering cell.” The Grand Jury report speculates that officers at the booking desk might not have placed him in one because the required checks every 15 minutes would have disrupted their routines on a busy night.

Brad Dreher was arrested on a Friday for making a threat of violence after unsuccessfully trying to get prescriptions for Xanax and Valium from a medical clinic. He told jail staff that he suffered from mental health issues and was without his normal medications. He was referred to the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a division of the County Health Services Agency assigned to the jail to provide mental health evaluations and services. Because the CIT is not available on nights and weekends, he was not evaluated before his death on Sunday.

Amanda Sloan had been in custody for over eight months after being shot in the leg by police during a confrontation in which she allegedly fired gunshots from inside her house before coming outside and aiming a gun at herself. According to press reports, her three children had been separated from each other and placed in foster care, and days before she committed suicide she was informed by a county social worker that she would lose custody of them permanently.

Santa Cruz rally for alternatives to incarceration by Aron Garst

Community members and UC Santa Cruz students hold signs advocating alternatives to incarceration that could be funded with the money the county is seeking for jail expansion. – Photo: Aron Garst

The for-profit California Forensic Medical Group (CFMG) took over the provision of medical care to county jail inmates on Sept. 17, 2012. As in many cases around the state, county supervisors voted to outsource medical care to save money.

CFMG is a privately-held corporation based in Monterey that got its start providing medical care to inmates in the Monterey County Jail in 1984 and has since expanded to win contracts in 65 facilities in 27 California counties. The company is currently defending against a number of lawsuits, including over the deaths of two inmates in January of this year in the Monterey County Jail.

Alarmed by the four deaths in the jail between August and January, local Santa Cruz group Sin Barras organized a demonstration to call attention to the issue on April 6, 2013. The Santa Cruz Sentinel covered the story “Report blasts Main Jail over inmate deaths: Five deaths over 11 months spark reform calls.”

The Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury is a group of 19 private citizens selected to serve for one or two years by the supervising judge of the county’s Superior Court. The Grand Jury has the power to initiate investigations into the workings of all city and county governments and to publish its findings. After the demonstration organized by Sin Barras, the Grand Jury conducted an investigation into the deaths in the jail.

While the number of deaths was extremely unusual for a jail of its size, the Grand Jury did not find an unusual level of incompetence or cruelty at the jail. If something out of the ordinary was wrong with how the jail was being run, it has been covered up successfully, at least so far.

Alarmed by the four deaths in the jail between August and January, local Santa Cruz group Sin Barras organized a demonstration to call attention to the issue on April 6, 2013.

It seems just as likely that these deaths, and the public attention they attracted, are an example of a series of sad coincidences briefly bumping business-as-usual in the Prison Industrial Complex across the line into newsworthiness. The real culprits being the lack of health care, mental health care and help for drug addicts outside the law enforcement system.

N.H. Putnam is a member of Sin Barras. Sin Barras, without (prison) bars in Spanish, is a community-based group out of Santa Cruz that works to build coalitions to eradicate the prison industrial complex. Sin Barras is a member organization of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB). N.H. Putnam and Sin Barras can be reached at sinbarras@gmail.com or P.O. Box 8443, Santa Cruz, CA 95061-8443.

5 thoughts on “Grand Jury investigates Santa Cruz County Jail deaths

  1. Steve Pleich

    Grand Jury Report on Jail Deaths Only a Snapshot of the Larger Picture

    Original Article by Steve Pleich – Santa Cruz County Community Coalition to Overcome Racism

    In a recent story about the Santa Cruz County Grand Jury report on jail medical care and conditions, one juror said that he was “shocked” at the lax oversight and poor communication between jail staff and medical personnel that led to 5 deaths in our jail during the past 11 months. While residents of our county whose tax dollars support the jail system may also be shocked by the conditions that contributed to these deaths, local activist groups such as Sin Barras and SCCCCOR that have consistently spoken out and worked for systemic reform in our prison system are not.
    Local jail deaths are extremely rare. In 2011, for example, the entire state saw just 92 according the Bureau of Justice Statistics. While the normal mortality rate is around 125 per 100,000 inmates, Santa Cruz County’s rate was 10 times that number during that period. However, what is equally alarming is that these deaths came as the county outsourced jail medical treatment to private Monterey-based California Forensic Medical Group, a decision that has effectively placed medical care for inmates of our jail beyond local control or accountability. Dramatic and disconcerting as these figures surely are, they are but a very small snapshot of the larger far uglier picture.
    In my view, these deaths are a tragic and unacceptable symptom of a disease. But the real disease is mass incarceration driven by the prison/industrial complex and fueled by institutional racism. Mainstream society seems comfortable with the policy of separating whole segments of our population from their liberty and in supporting a prison/industrial complex that is building new jail and prison cells at an unprecedented rate. So what questions do we need to ask to at least begin to understand and address the grave social issues that this current state of affairs represents? Consider these for a start:
    Ask why our country imprisons a greater percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world. Ask why Black Americans who comprise 12% of the population compose 40% of all prison populations. Ask why 65% of all those incarcerated are non-violent drug offenders. Ask why 80% of those incarcerated nationally have some alcohol or substance abuse problem. Consider asking our President why the federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine are 18 times that of the punishment for powder. Ask why our county jail is operating at 120% capacity at a time when the State of California is under a federal consent decree to reduce the overall prison population by 30,000. Or ask why, in consideration of the fact that the consent decree is based on a finding by the court that the level of medical care provided to prison inmates violates their constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, our county jail has decided to outsource its medical care and place it beyond local control. county jail has decided to outsource its medical care and place it beyond local control. And, perhaps most immediately, ask why our Governor would designate millions in state funds for “brick and mortar” jail programs and not one cent for the rehabilitative and support services that might finally break the endless cycle of recidivism that is crippling our youngest generation.

    It has been truly said that a community cannot arrest its way out of crime; and it most certainly cannot incarcerate its way out. It has also been said that the war on drugs and the unrestrained rush to build more jail and prison cells to warehouse offenders has created a new “Jim Crow” which has effectively bound and shackled an entirely new generation of young Black Americans. I say that the reach of this new Mr. Crow is broad enough and insidious enough to shackle us all. And that is why we must all start asking these questions today. If we ask just one of these questions, we move one step closer to a common understanding of this national disgrace. If we ask them all, we can take a giant leap toward an end to mass incarceration, institutionalized racism and the wasted lives that are product of this wholly broken system.

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