Alleged abuses at Fresno County Jail prompt lawsuit

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Disability Rights California and Prison Law filed a class action lawsuit against Fresno County on Tuesday, charging that county officials have been “deliberately indifferent to the unreasonable risk of harm” for inmates with mental disabilities at the county jail.

“Since Fresno has radically cut back outpatient mental health services, the jail has become a costly dumping ground for people with mental illness who need care but cannot find it elsewhere,” said Rachel Scherer, an attorney at Disability Rights California, in a news release.  “It would cost the county far less to provide mental health treatment in the community through alternative diversion programs or supervised release of those who pose a low risk to public safety.”

The lawsuit details “dungeon-like conditions,” at the facility, where people with mental disabilities languish in solitary confinement and receive minimal, at best, health care. It accuses the prison of consistently understaffing its medical staff, particularly during the time of 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., where the hospital allegedly keeps three nurses on staff for the prison’s 2,300 inmates. Examples of alleged abuses include an inmate waiting more than a year to receive a specialist for his Crohn’s disease and the prison failing to perform laboratory tests to determine the severity of another inmate’s kidney disease.

The prison also allegedly fails to screen for mental illnesses as the inmates enter the jail, and is often insensitive to these particular concerns. In some instances, correctional officers fire nonlethal bullets at close range to prisoners in psychiatric distress, among other “unnecessary uses of force.”

The prison’s population is projected to increase to 2,700 by April 2012 as the state looks to shift more inmates from its state prison system to county jails.

Disability Rights California is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.

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