Sonoma County Jail Abuse


Jail House Blues

Michael Amsler

In the wake of recent in-custody deaths, escapes, and a porn scandal involving correctional officers, new allegations of abuse surface at the Sonoma County Jail

By Greg Cahill and Paula Harris

JOAN MCMILLAN’S journey “through hell and back” started last April on a short bus ride from the honor farm near the Santa Rosa Airport to the Sonoma County Jail’s main adult detention facility. Six months pregnant and busted for supplementing her welfare income, the 44-year-old faced jeers from male inmates sharing the ride. “I started having contractions,” she recalls. “I already had some [pregnancy] complications.”

It was a bad omen. At the jail, correctional officers placed McMillan in a tiny holding cell for nine hours, she says, and her physical condition began to deteriorate. “After eight hours I was experiencing dizziness and almost blacking out,” McMillan recalls. “My body was going into some kind of weird shock. I was sweating and I lay on the floor, freezing and shaking … .

“The next thing I knew, a female guard was kicking me on my hips and thighs, calling me ‘drama queen’ and ‘bitch.'”

That night the county jail staff moved her to an infirmary cell, but things didn’t improve, McMillan says. “I was throwing up, dehydrated, a total wreck,” she remembers. “The medical treatment was horrible. I would ring the emergency buzzer when I was having contractions, but the guards, especially the younger ones, seemed preoccupied at the computers. They would ignore the buzzers as long as they could.”

Seated at a wooden table in the kitchen of her old farmhouse in rural Freestone–with several excitable dogs at her feet, and a mellow, sweet-faced 10-month- old baby girl on her knee–McMillan wears no makeup, her blondish hair scraped back in a ponytail topped by a baseball cap. She has clear, contemplative eyes and an easy smile that belies an air of melancholy as she speaks.

“I almost died there,” she says in a low, steady voice. “I still have bad dreams from the experience.”

Porno probe still unresolved.

Investigation reveals at
Sonoma County Jail has an ugly past.

Allegations of Abuse

McMillan is one of numerous inmates and their relatives who have contacted the Independent in the past 18 months with allegations of abuses at the Sonoma County Jail, ranging from substandard food to alleged acts reminiscent of the Soviet gulags.

For example, inmate Darlene Baldridge, now in custody at the jail’s mental health unit, wrote on June 8: “The treatment I have received here at the main jail has caused me to consider suicide. I have never attempted suicide, but I made a noose. [When it was discovered], I was stripped naked and locked in a ‘safety cell’ for two days and subjected to a constant parade of male guards coming by the cell to tell me I was ‘disgusting, indecent, ugly, and shameful.’ They took away my clothes and then tortured me for being naked.

“Everything, before I have been to trial,” she adds. “If this is how innocent people are being treated in America, someone needs to rewrite the Constitution. I thought people were innocent until proven guilty, but you don’t need a trial for a dead inmate.”

When asked about that incident, Assistant Sheriff Sean McDermott, who heads the county jail, is dismissive. “That’s an inmate in mental health,” says McDermott, who doesn’t recall any formal complaint about alleged verbal abuse in the Baldridge case. “If we believe someone is actually suicidal, we’ll put them in a safety cell. We do take their clothes. We issue paper safety gowns until they pass an evaluation with the psychiatrist.”

Former inmate Sean Raab wrote on Sept. 16 that he unsuccessfully battled jail medical staff to receive a diabetic diet because he suffered from hypoglycemia. He says it took almost a year to recover from a bout of malnutrition while he was incarcerated. “Being punished by jail time is one thing,” he wrote, “but malnutrition should not be a part of that in modern times.”

The private food service at the jail is a frequent source of complaints from inmates. On Aug. 30, then-inmate Steve Woodward wrote: “After working in the kitchen, [I’ve observed that] the quality of the food and the condition of sanitation is enough to make me appreciate the fact that I didn’t eat very much while I was there.

“If the kitchen were a commercial one, it would have been closed down by the [county] health department due to blatant violations of basic hygiene.”

Ten days later, Woodward wrote: “Several inmates experienced food poisoning after eating tainted soup. According to inmates working in the kitchen, one of the supervisorial staff is loath to throw anything out, and is known for adding borderline rotten food, as well as food [that] has been improperly stored, into the soup kettle.”

McDermott defends the conditions of the jail kitchen. “The jail is routinely inspected by public health, especially the food service, for cleanliness, dietary needs, and nutrition,” he says. “We meet that every year. We pride ourselves in absolute cleanliness in our facility. We challenge anyone to find the facility to be unclean.”

Admittedly, it’s difficult to verify these reports, because of the closed nature of the jail. The Independent had requested a jail tour in connection with this article. McDermott refused to allow a reporter and photographer access to the facility.

But the frequency and similarities of these and other allegations suggest a pattern and beg the question of whether there are fundamental deficiencies in the policies and procedures used to care for county jail inmates.

County jail officials contend the reports are fabrications. “In reality, the people we have in this institution aren’t here because they are very truthful,” says McDermott, “and their behavior isn’t so positive that it would warrant they not be here.”

In the past, McDermott has sung the praises of correctional officers and medical personnel at the jail. “We train our staff to high standards to deal with these circumstances,” he said recently on KPFA-FM’s Flashpoints show.

The Sonoma County Jail is one of 16 out of 135 similar facilities around the state that met compliance with all state Board of Correction standards last year. The county is also one of 19 in the state that has fully accredited medical facilities.

State Review Ordered

But in March the county Board of Supervisors, at the request of Sheriff Jim Piccinini, approved a $35,000 review of county jail conditions and operations, including medical and mental health services (which are handled by the Sonoma County Mental Health Services Division). The results of that state Board of Corrections review are expected within the next two weeks.

The review follows six in-custody deaths, at least three suicide attempts, two escapes, and one attempted escape, all within the past 18 months.

Among the recent incidents at the jail, the June 4, 1997, death of Joanne Marie Holmes, 35, who died in custody after being arrested for a traffic offense and outstanding warrants, sparked a storm of protests from longtime critics of jail conditions. According to an autopsy report, Holmes suffered a seizure and other complications of heroin withdrawal. A wrongful death lawsuit filed by her estranged husband, Robert Holmes, claims that jail medical staff “failed to evaluate and treat her condition” or to provide medical assistance “even after [Holmes] became visibly ill.”

Crystal (who asked that her real name not be used), a former inmate who was incarcerated in Sonoma County Main Jail for four days and three nights in June 1997, was confined two cells away from Holmes. Crystal says that when she met Holmes on the first day, Holmes appeared to be physically healthy, but she didn’t see her again for a couple of days. “[Holmes] never came out of the cell,” Crystal says. “One day, she finally came out for about 10 minutes and I didn’t recognize her. Her eyelids were pulled away from her eyes, she smelled bad, and her skin was gray. She went back into the cell and I never saw her again.

“On the first night [Holmes] kept pressing the call button because she was sick. They gave her a form to fill out and said, ‘The doctor will be with you in a couple of days.’ At night, I could hear [her] gasping for air, vomiting, and moaning all night long.”

“[Holmes] was only buzzing the first day. She gave up because no one was helping her,” says Crystal. “She was too sick to move … .

“When I got home, I heard the next day that [Holmes] had died.”

In a Feb. 2 press release, Sonoma County District Attorney Mike Mullins stated that his investigation found no criminal neglect in the Holmes case, and noted that Holmes never reported her addiction to medical staff or correctional officers. “Health care staff will see [about 20 to 25 inmates a year undergoing drug withdrawal and who do not die] … and based on their experiences, [they] believe that inmates do not die from drug withdrawal. In fact, other than Ms. Holmes, there have been no deaths in the [county jail] due to complications from withdrawal in recent history. These facts would lead staff to believe withdrawal does not involve a high degree of risk of death.”

The contention that jail staff see only a couple of dozen drug-addicted inmates each year is contradicted by Dr. John P. Hibbard, an addictionologist and staff physician at the Sonoma County Jail who also is named in the Holmes lawsuit. In an essay on the Sonoma County Medical Association website, Hibbard wrote:

“For the last year, I’ve worked at the county jail and have become ever more convinced of the futility of criminal sanctions [for addicted inmates]. Most of the more than 900 prisoners are chemically dependent. Many of these men and women, unless effectively treated, are destined to become permanent wards of the state under the rigors of the ‘three strikes’ system. The inhumanity and crushing expense of this system, as opposed to the ruinous social costs of substance abuse, pose a true dilemma for policymakers.

“I believe we have a resolution for the dilemma, although not an easy one … . Only when this view gives way to the newer perspective of addiction as an illness can we start to make genuine progress.”

More recently, Drue Harris, 30, arrested after an altercation with a female companion, hanged himself Feb. 24 in a county jail infirmary cell after being in custody 17 hours. According to family members, inmates report that Harris was crying and distraught an hour before his death and would still be alive if correctional officers had intervened.

Jailers say Harris showed no signs of distress.

According to the coroner’s investigation, “[Harris] was found in a sitting position at the foot of his bed. Spare jail clothing had been used to wrap around his neck. The clothing had been attached to the springs of the bed on the inside of the footboard. It is speculated that the decedent then somehow somersaulted over the end of his bed ending up in a sitting position hanging himself.”

Jamie Harris, Drue Harris’ mother, is not convinced by the report. She believes her son did not commit suicide but died of an untreated head injury allegedly suffered shortly before his arrest.

She complains that the District Attorney’s Office refuses to give out any information about the case, and that situation is hindering her from filing a lawsuit against the county. “They say there’s a pending investigation [into the suicide], but it seems like a tactic,” she says. “I have no faith in any of this; it’s just completely whitewashed.

“The whole environment is totally silent, secret, and without accountability.”

Experts agree that these types of medical and mental health cases pose a significant challenge to correctional facilities. “I’d say you have a lot of deaths [in Sonoma County],” concludes Dr. Terry Kupers, an Oakland-based physician and psychiatrist who testifies in class-action lawsuits regarding inmate conditions, and who testified in a 1992 settlement about conditions at the Sonoma County Jail. “The population that comes to jail is often medically sick and physically prone to suicide. Something is wrong when you have that many deaths in that short of a time.

“It’s an emergency, and you need to reform medical health and mental health services.”

Medical Malaise

Last week, the Independent reported that Correctional Medical Services, the St. Louis-based firm contracted by the county for almost $3 million a year to provide private health care at the jail, was named in 1997 in nearly 800 lawsuits nationwide alleging medical negligence. Since 1992, county supervisors have continued to approve that contract each year without close examination of CMS’ track record.

Locally, CMS is named in a wrongful death suit filed in Sonoma County Superior Court by Holmes’ estranged husband, Robert Holmes.

It was the March 9 suicide of Carolyn Telzrow, 47, that once again drew attention to medical services at the jail. Telzrow, a licensed vocational nurse, was arrested for shoplifting. Her sister, Mary Hickerson, says Telzrow was on state disability for an injury because she had broken her back in a horse-riding accident. Telzrow was put on methadone by a community doctor for chronic back pain, and she was registered at a Sacramento-area methadone clinic. Telzrow was also under psychiatric care because she had a history of depression.

Telzrow was incarcerated at the Sonoma County Jail March 2-9. During that time, jail personnel did not consult with her psychiatrist or her community doctor, says Hickerson, adding that the jail doctor took Telzrow off the 100 mg. of methadone that had been prescribed for pain management.

“[The doctor] was not giving her anything for pain and she was going crazy–screaming, crying, and really in a lot of pain,” recalls Hickerson. “[The family] really feels that’s why she killed herself.”

Telzrow had been put on suicide watch for one day and then removed to remain in an infirmary cell. According to family members, inmates reported that Telzrow was in tremendous pain, screaming, “Help me, help me!” for two hours before her death, but jail staff reportedly did not respond. Telzrow eventually used her bra to hang herself inside the jail cell.

“She goes from suicide watch to not being watched at all, to killing herself,” marvels Hickerson. “What’re the criteria here? If there is a stated policy to give methadone, why didn’t they give it to her?

“Basically, she couldn’t stand what she was going through so she put herself to sleep,” says Hickerson. “In today’s world, in the medical field, there’s no reason for people to be in pain. My God, that’s prehistoric.”

County jail officials later gave Hickerson a courtesy tour of the facility. “I looked inside the cell where my sister had died and noticed there was a camera in there. I was told it was on her when she died, but they weren’t monitoring it,” she recalls.

When Hickerson returned with her lawyer, jails officials reportedly told her the monitor had been switched on to view an adjacent cell at the time that Telzrow killed herself.

Hickerson has filed complaints with the Sonoma County grand jury and the California Medical Association. She was not contacted by the state Board of Corrections for its review. “I didn’t even know they came,” she says. “But how can you investigate her death if you don’t have comprehensive information about Carol’s life before.

“She would be alive today if she hadn’t been in that jail, and I just don’t feel that what she did equated to a death sentence.”

A jail source, speaking on condition of anonymity, agrees. “[Telzrow] didn’t have to die, somebody should have been watching … . The officers were obviously preoccupied with other things. Whether they were working incredible amounts of overtime, or whether they were tuning in on the porn [see sidebar, “Porn Probe“], they missed those warning signs.”

Michael Spielman, executive director of the Drug Abuse Alternatives Center in Santa Rosa, says the jail is not at fault for not administering methadone to Telzrow. “If a person goes into the jail and is legally involved in taking methadone, it is up to the methodone clinic to dose them, it’s not up to the jail,” he explains.

He adds that DAAC’s Redwood Empire Addiction Program doses clients in jail, but some programs do not follow the same procedure. “Sometimes other clinics call us to do it. It’s called ‘courtesy dosing.'”

He says DAAC will dose clients for a maximum of 21 days. “If inmates are going to be in for a long time, we need to detoxify them,” he says.

Still, some inmates are fearful of telling jail personnel that they are addicted to narcotics because of possible third-strike charges. If they do not disclose this information, he adds, the jail is not at fault should the inmate go into withdrawal.

“The jail has to respond to the information provided by inmates,” Spielman says, “and it depends on whether people tell the truth.”

Meanwhile, jail officials dismiss the lawsuits. “We have a legitimate grievance process. We have grievance officers who take it very seriously, and we’ve effected changes on concerns raised,” says Assistant Sheriff McDermott.

“On the national average, inmates file tens of thousands of lawsuits, and about 98 percent are frivolous.”

Nowhere to Run

One fact that emerges from this investigation is how few watchdog agencies–public or otherwise–are keeping track of the conditions at the Sonoma County Jail in particular and at county jails statewide in general.

For this story, the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco referred Independent reporters to the Prison Law Office in San Rafael. That advocacy group doesn’t handle county jail complaints. Neither does the National Prisons Project in Washington, D.C.

“There’s nowhere to take complaints,” says Tanya Brannan of the Guerneville-based Purple Berets women’s advocacy group. “No one is really tallying and keeping track of the complaints. In this county, no one is really monitoring what’s going on inside. There are no outside advocates.”

Charla Greene, a Rohnert Park resident who works for Abolition Road, a group that keeps track of state prison issues, says, “The county jails fall through the cracks, and the county jails are even worse than the state prisons.

“Since inmates are basically invisible, authorities feel they can act with impunity,” Greene adds, “Also, public opinion is against inmates. The feeling is ‘they did something bad, so let them be treated bad.'”

Judith Volkart, chairperson of the local chapter of the ACLU, says that the group does receive some pleas for help from Sonoma County Jail inmates, but there is no comprehensive record of the complaints. “Not all the complaints are coming to us,” she says. “Maybe that’s a service we need to provide … . There needs to be someone keeping track of the information and a place to funnel complaints.”

Volkart plans to raise the issue at the ACLU’s next meeting. “It seems to me there needs to be a clearinghouse,” she adds, “so statistics can be gathered to see if there is any pattern [to the complaints].”

‘Holocaust’ Survivor

These days, Joan McMillan is worlds away from her county jail experience. Yet she clearly recalls the troubling details that led to Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Mark Tansil’s ruling last year that she should be released from the facility.

“He said I ‘could not thrive’ being pregnant within the Sonoma County Jail system,” says McMillan, pausing to adjust her shirt and gently shifting her daughter, Samantha Rose, into a nursing position beneath the fabric.

Undergoing a high-risk pregnancy at the time of her incarceration, McMillan wrote to Rep. Lynn Woolsey for help, and asked Judge Tansil to allow her to see her regular physician. Finally, McMillan was permitted a visit to the Occidental Area Health Center. “When the doctors saw me, their jaws dropped,” she recalls. “I had lost more than 10 pounds in two weeks.”

Dr. Trina Bowen, a physician at the health center, wrote to Tansil on McMillan’s behalf and asked him to reconsider her case. “[McMillan] didn’t seem to be a danger to society, and I didn’t see any reason for her to be incarcerated when that could be a threat to her pregnancy,” Bowen says.

In response, the judge changed McMillan’s criminal charges to a civil case, allowing her to pay restitution. He then released McMillan on conditional probation.

“I felt like a Holocaust victim when I got out,” says McMillan, who now breeds horses and plans to teach riding to children. “It was a miracle that I survived the conditions there and that my baby survived.”

From the July 2-8, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.



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