A commission assigned to investigate Santa Clara County jails meets for the first time this weekend. Its first order of business: deciding whether to call the whole thing off.
Retired judge LaDoris Cordell fears that the task force was more of an effort to polish the county’s image than reform its troubled jails. County leaders convened the 26-member Blue Ribbon Commission to Evaluate Custody Operations after three jailers allegedly beat to death a mentally ill inmate in August.
Days ahead of its inaugural meeting, however, Cordell found out that the county quietly hired a risk-management firm to conduct its own audit. Those simultaneous investigations seem at odds with each other, Cordell told San Jose Inside. The blue-ribbon task force wants to shine a light on custody issues, while the consultant aims to sidestep litigation.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it,” Cordell said. “I have just never heard of one investigation going on in the dark whose purpose is to reduce liability, while another investigation is going on in the sunshine where liability is supposed to be irrelevant.”
County supervisors hired Sabot Consulting in June after disability rights advocates threatened to sue over inadequate accommodations for disabled inmates. The county agreed to hire Sabot for hundreds of thousands of dollars to avoid a lawsuit by fixing the jails, according to the Mercury News, which broke the news to Cordell Thursday. A contract for another review of mental health and use of force policies as well as an analysis of gaps in service is still being developed.
“My concern is that we’re duplicating the same inquiry that’s being conducted by a paid consultant that has a panel of experts that will issue a confidential report,” she said. “Now that we know, the question is: what do we do?”
She plans to figure that out by the end of the commission’s first meeting.
“I’m glad I found out now rather than getting into this work and then learning about this secret review,” she said. “I’m glad it’s out because I think transparency is always the best way to go in government. But I plan to make this the main item on the agenda. What can we do? What should we do? Should we demand that this private report be made public?”
It’s up to the commission to decide how to move forward. Depending on what happens tomorrow, Cordell said she might decide she wants nothing to do with it.
“I’m glad I found out now rather then getting into this work and finding out a few months in,” she said. “This raises serious concerns.”
Kelly Knapp, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, said she’s encouraged that Cordell is questioning the intent of the civilian oversight group.
“I give them a lot of credit for appointing her,” she said.
Supervisor Dave Cortese, a member of the blue-ribbon commission, said he wants the advisory group to have a real impact, though it has no authority beyond issuing recommendations.
“We’ve worked hard to iron out any communication issues with [Cordell],” Cortese said. “The county will continue to fully support the [commission] … and participate in the dialogue as to how best to implement transformational changes to our current custody operations.”
While Knapp lauded the effort, she expressed a concern of her own: that the county failed to appoint commissioners with experience working in jails. The board consists of elected leaders, clergy, public interest lawyers, judges, activists, trustees of the county’s behavioral health board, a correctional sergeant and Sheriff Laurie Smith.
“They don’t have enough custody operations experts,” Knapp said. “They need experts in use of force or experts on correctional healthcare. If they’re serious about this, they need people who formerly worked in the correctional system and now are known to be neutral or objective.”
Given the county’s interaction with the Prison Law Office, Knapp added, she wonders how receptive it would be to recommendations from a civilian board with no authority to enforce them.
In June, the nonprofit inmates rights group sent a letter that accused the county of misusing solitary confinement. Jail officials met with Knapp and her colleagues and gave them a tour of the Main Jail.
“When we left, we realized that we needed to continue talking about this,” Knapp said. “We sent them another letter on Aug. 5 that laid out in more detail some of the problems that we saw. The other thing we were saying in that letter is that we are choosing to come to you, to inform you of these issues, before we sue you. We have no interest in unnecessarily costing taxpayers’ money by protracted litigation. This was an attempt to avoid that.”
The county, she said, has yet to respond.
That letter made the rounds in news reports a few weeks later after 31-year-old inmate Michael Tyree’s lifeless body was found on the floor of his cell. Correctional officers Jereh Lubrin, Matthew Farris and Rafael Rodriquez were charged with murder in connection to the man’s death, which put the county’s two jails under intense public scrutiny.
Supervisors responded by creating the blue-ribbon commission to figure out how to make Elmwood and the Main Jail more safe and humane. Civil rights activists criticized the move as all for show, a way to look decisive without acknowledging that correctional authorities had known about inadequacies long before Tyree’s death.
The group will meet at 11am Saturday at the County Government Center, 70 W. Hedding St., in San Jose. According to the agenda, members will set future meeting dates, review open meeting laws, plan jail tours and talk about how to focus their investigation. There will also be a public comment period.