Lawsuit filed over solitary confinement

A class action lawsuit was filed Wednesday against Santa Clara County for placing hundreds of inmates in solitary confinement at its jails.

The lawsuit filed in federal court by Berkeley-based Prison Law Office, Cooley LLP in Palo Alto and Law Office of Kendall Dawson Wasley in Davis alleges the inmates have been placed in solitary confinement for years.

Brian Chavez and Brandon Bracamonte, two inmates at Santa Clara County Jail, are named as plaintiffs in the suit.

While confined the inmates had no human contact, stimulation, exercise or access to outside air, attorney Don Specter of the Prison Law Office said.

The inmates would be kept in tiny cells, as small as six feet by seven feet, for months or even years at a time, according to the suit.

The inmates were only permitted to be in small yards with tall, solid concrete walls and steel mesh for about three hours a week, according to the suit.

If they weren’t outside, the inmates would stay in their cells for the rest of the day and in many cases 47 consecutive hours, the suit states.

The confinement led to great physical and emotional harm for inmates at the county’s Main Jail in San Jose and Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas, according to Specter.

“We’re seeking injunction to end that practice,” Specter said.

Chavez has been at the jails since 2011 and indicted on narcotics, conspiracy and gang charges but has not been convicted, the suit states.

Jail authorities designated him as a “trustee” for demonstrating good behavior. The position allows special privileges and additional time outside a cell compared to other inmates, according to the suit.

Chavez was a trustee until last November when he was stripped of his title and placed into solitary confinement at Main Jail South, the suit states.

Bracamonte was arrested on suspicion of carjacking in April 2012 and later indicted on conspiracy, robbery and gang charges that he has not been convicted of, the suit states.

He has lived in different areas and security levels at the jails and was also appointed a “trustee,” according to the suit.

Bracamonte was accused of gang assault in August 2013, but no charges were filed against him, the suit states.

Last November, Bracamonte was moved to a solitary confinement cell without windows where he was housed for the next year, according to the suit.

Earlier this month the plaintiffs and other inmates were placed into eight foot by 10 foot solitary confinement cells at Main Jail North, but were not given an explanation on the move, according to the suit.

The plaintiffs lived in cells that were not cleaned forcing them to live in “filth and grime,” had family visits limited to no more than two hours a week and at one point stayed indoors for seven months, the suit states.

The suit also seeks the release of Chavez and Bracamonte from the restricted cells, a due process hearing for the inmates who live in such conditions, and an “objective, standardized classification system,” regulating who gets placed in solitary confinement, according to the suit.

“Those with pre-existing mental illness suffer from worsening symptoms including hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia,” Prison Law Office staff attorney Kelly Knapp said in a statement:

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

In June, the Prison Law Office sent a letter to the sheriff’s office, which oversees the jail, regarding the harms faced by inmates, according to the suit.

The sheriff and other jail supervisors met with the Prison Law Office but there were no actions taken to improve conditions for inmates in solitary confinement, the suit alleges.

Only after the June meeting did the county permit the confined inmates to go to a sundeck once a week for an hour, according to the suit.

Sheriff’s Sgt. James Jensen said in an email:

“We appreciate the perspective brought by the Prison Law Office and in fact this past June we engaged a nationally respected consultant, on jail operations to advise the County on where the County can improve our custody operations. …¬†We encourage the public, Blue Ribbon Commission on Custody Operations to also review the issues highlighted by the Prison Law Office. We believe that the more eyes on our custody operations, the better.”