Lawsuit hammers solitary confinement practices at Santa Clara Jail

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hallway of jail doors with small windowsBrian Chavez’s jail cell measures six feet by seven feet. There is no room for even a writing table or a stool, just Chavez, a bed, and a solid metal door with a small rectangular window facing out toward a dim, narrow hallway.

Three hours per week, Chavez is allowed to partake in “recreation,” meaning he can access the “sundeck,” a seven-foot by 15 foot cage enclosed by tall concrete walls that allows him to see the sky. The sundeck contains no sitting space, exercise equipment, toilet or access to water.

Chavez has been indicted on conspiracy, narcotics and gang charges, but never convicted of any crime. There are no serious jail infractions to his name.

Yet, this is Chavez’s life for much of the past four years. Hundreds of inmates in the Santa Clara County Jail live in similar conditions, according to a new class-action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on November 18.

“The County is harming people by locking them in harsh conditions of solitary confinement. People isolated in tiny jail cells for 22 to 24 hours every day become depressed and suicidal,” said Kelly Knapp, a staff attorney at the Prison Law Office, in a news release [PDF]. “Those with pre-existing mental illness suffer from worsening symptoms including hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia.

“To make matters worse, many of these men and women did nothing to deserve being placed in solitary confinement in the first place.”

The 25-page complaint [PDF] accuses Santa Clara County of violating the 14th Amendment by subjecting inmates to “cruel and unusual punishment” and violating their procedural due process rights by failing to provide them an opportunity to challenge their jail placements.

In addition, the Prison Law Office, which filed the complaint along with Cooley LLP and the Law Office of Kendall Dawson Wasley, accuses the County of being “deliberately indifferent,” to the needs of people in solitary confinement, even when they have a mental illness, or develop a mental illness during their time in isolation.

“Defendant fails to screen individuals for mental illness before locking them in solitary confinement,” the lawsuit states. “Defendant also fails to provide adequate mental health services to any individuals in solitary confinement.

“Consequently, people with mental illness are experiences suicidal ideation, hallucinations, delusions, and are acting out by making suicidal gestures, yelling and screaming, and smearing feces.”

In addition to Chavez, the lawsuit names Brandon Bracamonte as a plaintiff, who similarly has been indicted of conspiracy, robbery and gang charges, but never convicted of any crime or never formally charged with a violation of jail rules. Nonetheless, he was placed in solitary confinement from November 2014 to November 4 of this year.

A video about the lawsuit, from NBC Bay Area, can be seen here.