Santa Clara County faces legal threat over jail conditions
The Santa Clara County Main Jail in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

    Santa Clara County’s crumbling jail conditions, which have been described as a “hellhole” and led to hunger strikes, could land the county in court

    The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley on March 17 sent the county a letter demanding conditions be addressed before the end of the month — or else it will sue.

    “We are deeply concerned that Santa Clara County is failing to provide even minimally adequate procedures to address and protect against COVID-19,” the letter says.

    The letter argues that the county is violating the inmates’ rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, as well as their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    The county has come under fire from grassroots organizations, such as Silicon Valley De-Bug and Sacred Heart.

    Silicon Valley De-Bug in January published a 9-page report titled “Caged in COVID” that detailed unsanitary and potentially unconstitutional conditions within the county’s jails.

    A San José Spotlight report in September detailed how one inmate who experienced COVID symptoms was forced into a “hellhole” infirmary with nine others who were sick, after isolating in a small cell with what looked like rodent feces. He slept feet away from other inmates, sanitized sticky dorm floors and bathed with a sock and a shared bucket of water. He was given Tylenol and cough drops, but only after midnight when other inmates were asleep.

    The letter, addressed to Board of Supervisors President Mike Wasserman and Sheriff Laurie Smith, lists 13 remedies that the county should comply with to avoid legal action.

    The sheriff’s office did not respond to requests to comment. Neither did Wasserman.

    Abre’ Conner, a Law Foundation attorney and signatory of the letter to the county, said the county has had a year to deal with the COVID pandemic and its response to how it keeps inmates and detainees safe in the jails. But common sense approaches have not been taken, Conner said.

    “Right now is not the time for the county and the sheriff to really drag their feet in response to very serious health concerns that are very specific to COVID-19,” Conner told San José Spotlight. “Frankly, if they don’t move more quickly, they will be putting more individuals in harm’s way.”

    As of Tuesday, county officials had not responded to the letter, according to the Law Foundation.

    Remedies to avoid a lawsuit include providing new, medical-grade masks to incarcerated individuals daily, immediately vaccinating inmates and increasing testing frequency from two weeks to every three to seven days until there are no active COVID cases within the jail

    The letter also demands that jail staff comply with all other guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for preventing the spread of COVID in congregate settings, including social distancing of six feet, or spacing inmates out as far as physically possible. The letter alleges that staff have not made an effort to follow these guidelines.

    Inmates have reported not having adequate PPE, lack of social distancing and forced solitary confinement for inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 or displayed symptoms. Meanwhile, COVID cases soared in January when 127 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 out of 2,200 inmates.

    As of Wednesday, there is only one active COVID case among inmates, according to the the Sheriff’s Office COVID-19 dashboard. The same dashboard reports two active cases among employees,

    “The county’s failure to take measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the jails has a disproportionate burden on people with disabilities, who are already over-represented in the county’s jails,” the letter says, detailing violations under the ADA.

    Under the ADA, the county is required to identify and implement precautions for detainees and inmates with chronic health conditions. Those with chronic conditions are more susceptible to harm from COVID-19 and legally require greater protection, which the county has not provided, according to the letter.

    “The county’s failure to take measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the jails has a disproportionate burden on people with disabilities, who are already over-represented in the county’s jails,” the letter continues. “Constitutional Rights are not suspended during a crisis. Neither is Santa Clara County’s obligation to comply with state and federal disability anti-discrimination laws.”

    Meanwhile, many sheriff’s office employees have refused to get vaccinated, the letter pointed out, putting inmates at unnecessary risk. In February, nearly half of employees, about 800, had turned down the chance at a vaccine.

    Conner said she’s hoping the county will improve jail conditions before they’re forced to go to court.

    “What we’re really hoping for is that we can all get on the same page,” Conner said. “That the county will read this and they will realized  that a lot of these things are common sense approaches to making sure that individuals who are incarcerated and detained, that their constitutional rights are not shed just because they are in a jail setting.”

    Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.


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