The Prison Law Office’s findings are in sharp contrast to Sheriff John McMahon’s characterization of conditions at West Valley after the FBI announced last year that it was investigating allegations of misconduct at West Valley.

By Joe Nelson, The Sun
Posted: 06/30/15 – 9:18 PM PDT |

Responding to allegations of inhumane conditions in county jails, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is ramping up staffing to increase oversight of prisoners and health services.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Jodi Miller said five new sergeants and 10 correctional nurses will be hired at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga, where most of the alleged inmate abuse and medical neglect is said to have occurred.

The moves come in response to a letter from the Prison Law Office, a 35-year-old nonprofit that fights for the Constitutional rights of the incarcerated. The Prison Law Office launched an investigation last year into inmate conditions at the jails after fielding numerous complaints from inmates, mainly from West Valley, who alleged they were routinely brutalized by deputies and failed to receive proper medical and mental health treatment. Disabled inmates also alleged the jails did not have the proper facilities to accommodate their special needs.

“The Sheriff’s Office and the county take these allegations seriously. That is why we have undertaken to discuss these matters with the (Prison Law Office) and are working cooperatively with them to address the issues they have raised,” Miller said. She said the changes at the jails are to address prison realignment.

The county has also allocated $3 million in its 2015-2016 fiscal year budget to increase mental health care services at all four county jails – West Valley, the Central Detention Center in San Bernardino, the High Desert Detention Center in Adelanto, and the Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center in Devore, Miller said, adding that the jails have already undergone millions of dollars in renovations to make them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Prison Law Office attorneys corresponded with more than 700 inmates and reviewed the medical records of more than 250 inmates during the investigation, concluding there was an “apparent culture of violence” in the jails, primarily West Valley, where deputies engaged in a pattern of excessive force to “beat, tase [sic], and restrain prisoners.”

Inmates described specific instances of excessive force by deputies that resulted in broken bones, dislocated joints, bruising, swelling and hemorrhaging, according to an eight-page letter addressed to Sheriff John McMahon from Prison Law Office Director Donald Specter, dated Aug. 14, 2014.

The Prison Law Office also concluded there were “serious inadequacies with mental, medical and dental care” at the jails, that prisoners with disabilities were discriminated against and not provided reasonable accommodations, and that the jails do not properly classify inmates who face potential harm from other inmates, such as gang dropouts, who should be isolated from the jail’s general population.

The Prison Law Office’s findings are in sharp contrast to Sheriff John McMahon’s characterization of conditions at West Valley after the FBI announced last year that it was investigating allegations of misconduct at West Valley. McMahon said at the time that it was an isolated situation confined to a few deputies in one particular unit at the West Valley Detention Center. He subsequently hosted a tour of West Valley, where he described the medical facilities and the medical, mental health and dental care inmates were receiving as first rate.

McMahon could not be reached for comment for this story. He was “extremely busy” and unavailable for comment this week, Miller said Tuesday. She noted that the allegations by the Prison Law Office are just that – allegations – and have not been “tested or proven in a court of law or before a jury.”

An internal investigation into allegations of inmate abuse last March resulted in the removal of three rookie deputies and the suspensions of several other deputies.

It also spurred a spate of federal lawsuits, five to date, alleging civil rights violations against inmates.

In February, a federal grand jury was convened to hear testimony and review evidence in the case. The status of the grand jury inquiry is pending.

Specter said that of all the county jails the Prison Law Office has investigated, San Bernardino County’s stand out in terms of the number of inmate complaints alleging excessive use of force by deputies.

“The most striking thing about the conditions in the San Bernardino County jail is the number of serious complaints we received about the use of excessive force,” Specter said Monday in an e-mail. “I can’t give you a number from other counties, but no other jail has been close to the frequency of the complaints in San Bernardino.”

Specter’s letter to McMahon was disclosed in a June 23 staff report to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, who during their regularly scheduled meeting that day approved an additional $250,000 for legal representation in the county’s ongoing negotiations with the Prison Law Office.

The county retained the San Francisco-based law firm Futterman Dupree Dodd Croley Maier LLP in January to represent them in its negotiations with the Prison Law Office. To date, the law firm has billed the county more than $74,000.

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