Jails Commission Might Disband

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.

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“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.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. I’m proud of Judge Cordell for questioning the integrity of this commission, and I’m proud of Kelly Knapp, an attorney with the Prison Law Office for questioning the make up of the commission. They DO need experts on the commission who know how the jails are run! Experts who aren’t afraid of retaliation from the Sheriff.

    I think Sheriff Smith’s appointment, and the BOS being on the commission is a direct conflict of interest since they have a vested interest in the outcome. These folks have already ignored recommendations from the Civil Grand Jury and I think they’ll ignore suggestions from this commission as well.

    I think this commission is a farce based on everything I’ve heard and read about it. Judge Cordell and community members want vital change in the jails, and so do the families of both inmates and staff working in the jails. I don’t think these changes will occur as long as this commission is just “advisory!” Time for the FBI or another government entity to look into this.

    Let us not forget, budget cuts to staff and training have a lot to do with the failures in the jails. So does the lack of mental health treatment. Too many inmates are just mentally ill people with no where else to be placed. That in and of its self is a crime!

    The press needs to keep on this. I’m certain there is more going on than we are being told. Go for it SJI!

  2. As a taxpayer, I found it outrageous that Sheriff Smith so aggressively condemned the three correctional officers before these “presumed innocent” men could have their day in court. Hers was conduct demanding a hard look, not because she can be assumed ignorant of their culpability (one would at least hope she made sure to get the facts right), but because of the negative and costly consequences her actions might bring to the county coffers, her own staff, and to the judicial process. What purpose, one must ask, was served by the sheriff’s grandstanding, besides protecting her own political position? As a well compensated public servant the sheriff had no ethical right to put her own interests above those that all but define the responsibilities of her office.

    The county coffers which she laid open and exposed with her reckless statements are not the deep pockets of an unsympathetic fat cat, they are instead the very limited funding repository for services essential to everyone who becomes involved in the justice system. Laurie Smith’s big mouth, and the liability free-for-all she encouraged, could very well result in a deputy not having a back-up, a courtroom cutting security, or an inmate receiving a level of attention even lower than is now alleged.

    In her eagerness to condemn the accused (as factually guilty) before trial the message she sent to the deputies and correctional officers serving under her was crystal clear: the sheriff cares not a lick about their due process rights.

    And for those who might cheer the sheriff for so publicly expressing her moral outrage I ask: was the sheriff’s rush to judgment worth the change in venue that is now there to be had by these accused young men? Did she, with her demonstrated disregard for the rights of these C/O’s, expose her department’s investigation to serious questions about objectivity and political objectives? Will Laurie Smith’s fat trap turn out to be the defense attorneys’ best asset?

    Squawk if you will about the county working in the shadows in defense of its treasury, but the people behind that decision were doing nothing less than their jobs. Allowing the community of well-practiced liars — the lawyers, race merchants, and criminals, to loot the treasury and bring the county to its knees (as has been done in Oakland) has nothing to do with injustice and everything to do with good governance.

    That LaDoris Cordell did not take it for granted that defensive maneuvers were underway just goes to show what you can expect from someone who is unacquainted with authority of the type that includes accountability.

  3. It would have been, and maybe still will be, fascinating to compare the results of a professional consulting firm’s audit of jail operations to those of Cordell’s own race agenda tainted committee conclusions. It is my deep suspicion that Cordell wants her findings compared to the results of an outside consulting firm’s conclusions about as much as a vampire wants to be exposed to direct sunlight.

  4. I was looking through the names on the commission. In looking through qualifications of one name, I came across a picture of him and another male arm in arm, mugging for the picture, taken in 2014. They appeared to know each other well. I recognized this other male as a very well known and violent criminal. He was well known by SJPD in the 2000’s for going on a violent crime spree, stealing cars, carjackings, and robberies,and is a Hell’s Angels associate. He was caught and went to prison, but must have recently gotten out. That this person was appointed to a “Blue Ribbon” commission, shows what a disgraceful joke this commission is. Please Judge Cordell, disband this committee not for the reasons you gave, but because your commission is a bad joke.

    • Observation,

      Silence you fool! Don’t you understand anything at all about diversity?!? Has sensitivity training taught you nothing !?!

      Any “Blue Ribbon” Commission (as all politically induced panels, boards, studies, committees are) must be balanced to reflect and celebrate our diverse community interests and cultural richness. To that end, these vitally important (and always constructive and productive) societal protective entities must then adopt a sort of political Noah’s Ark inclusiveness; at least two persons of each race must be chosen to serve on such Commissions. (Except that, in order to provide the appearance of fairness, having a white guy on the panel is nice, but only one and, preferably an easily intimidated political hack, is allowable but not required). The morally handicapped must also be represented, meaning there must be at least one pairing of a junkie, a pervert, a pimp, a pedophile, a politician, a race merchant, a dope dealer or an ex-con on the panel. I believe the latter is what you saw in the picture. It’s only fair.

      The sad thing is, the convicted felon ex-con would probably be the only informed opinion and the only one who knows anything at all about how a jail should be run; the rest have not been caught yet.

      Of course it’s always better to have something be a “bad joke” than a “sickening travesty”, but unfortunately, in this Blue Ribbon Commission, we get both.

  5. Neither Cordell nor the commission are the story here. The real story is the Board of Supes trying to slip through a $470k consulting contract under the radar, while spending a lot of time and getting a lot of ink about the commission, thus diverting the public’s attention from the only real issue—the consulting contract. Blue Ribbon Commissions are usually a joke. The Supes talk transparency, but when it gets down to the short strokes on controversial issues, they circle the wagons and go into silent mode. They must have taken lessons from Beau Goldie at the water district. Thank heaven SJI caught them. Perhaps now SJI will follow up on the real story.

    • This nothing more than a tried and true method used by activists for ages – STAGE A TANTRUM then GET YOUR WAY.

      The real story -(IF this very posting by SJI and the Merc’s story are to be believed) – is that this Super-secret – G-17 – Mark 3 Mod 1 classified consulting contract that the Board of Supervisors approved funding for Sabot deals with staving of a lawsuit over how the jail deals with “disabled” inmates.

      Further it says the Company was hired in “JUNE” to look into these matters- though the contact wasn’t signed until mid SEPTEMBER.”

      Inmate Tyree died in AUGUST.

      Cordell’s commission was announced in LATE OCTOBER.

      This is much ado about nothing except the fake outrage that we are so accustomed to Cordell manufacturing.

  6. Ladoris Cordell is a biased and racist individual, yet she is put on a pedestal. Our society needs to wake up and see the reality for what it is. She is the epitome of a double standard, but our city council, mayor, and now the County Supervisors are too afraid of political ramifications of pointing this out. Instead, they double down on their fawning, tacitly supporting this former judge who is the least impartial, least objective person who was appointed to head this dog and pony show of a commission. She and folks like her have done nothing but damage to the very communities they purport to be helping, by reinforcing the victimization mentality and throwing out personal responsibility for one’s behavior, instead blaming it on “the man”.

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