Report from the Frontlines
the Jail Struggle
after Joanie Holmes died an excruciating and needless death in
the Sonoma County Jail, the Purple Berets became involved. A former
domestic violence client had been in jail with Joanie just
a door or two away from the dying woman. She and another inmate
wanted the world to know what they had witnessed. We interviewed
the two women on a hot day in June, 1997. They clutched their
young children close as they described Joanie's slow and agonizing
death by dehydration. Horrified as we were by this firsthand account
of the jail's neglect and inhuman treatment, we had no idea that
this death was to be just the first of many.
time seven more people have died in custody or within hours of
their release five in just nine months. Like Joanie Holmes,
inmates John Banks, Kenny Stra, Drue Harris, Carolyn Telzrow,
Phillip Medina, Barry Rogers and Paul Daniel would likely be alive
today if they'd received competent medical and mental health care
while captives of the Sonoma County Jail.
From the moment of Joanie Holmes' death, the Purple Berets worked
constantly to draw public attention to jail medical conditions.
Actions ranging from speak-outs at public meetings to demonstrations
at the jail; from street theater at the downtown market to a takeover
of the Board of Supervisors meeting, all were intended to draw
public attention to the deadly conditions at the jail and to pressure
public officials to make lifesaving change. We also kept up a
steady presence at the jail for more than a year, telling visitors
of the potential danger to their loved ones inside and collecting
complaints from inmates about the ongoing medical problems.
potentially lethal problems reported to us repeatedly are these:
inmates not receiving medications (including psychotropic meds,
insulin, AIDS cocktails, and methadone); sick and injured inmates
not being seen by medical personnel in a timely fashion; horrific
abuse of mentally ill inmates; and physical brutality by the guards.
after Joanie Holmes' tragic death, here's a look at where things
in the Towel
On April 14, 1999, Asst. Sheriff Sean McDermott was busted down
to captain and stepped down as supervisor of the county's two
jail facilities. McDermott, in charge during the jail's two years
from hell, cited health problems as the reason for his removal.
As such, he followed in the footsteps of ex-sheriff Mark Ihde
and ex-captain Casey Howard, both of whom were similarly exposed
and run off after years of relentless Purple Berets actions. (*
replacement, Mike Costa, hails from Tuolumne County where he ran
a jail 1/10 the size of this one. An ex-army drill sergeant, we'll
be paying him $90,000 to clean up the mess McDermott left behind.
We can only hope that this time we'll get our money's worth, though
two more deaths on Costa's watch make that doubtful.
March 16, 1999, the Board of Supervisors voted not to renew the
county's contract with Correctional Medical Services (CMS). Instead,
they put out a call for proposals with an eye toward finding a
new medical provider. But before you jump to the conclusion that
the Board finally "got it" and did the right thing, read on.
22nd, the Purple Berets got a copy of the agenda for the next
day's supervisors' meeting. Nestled there in the consent calendar
was the renewal of the county's contract with CMS. (The consent
calendar is made up of uncontested items that are all approved
en masse by a voice vote of the supes with no discussion
thirty seconds and it's all over.) Only quick action on our part
averted this rubber-stamping of another year of death and dying
in the jail with its price-tag of over $1/4 million per month.
Busted, the supes then took the contract renewal off the consent
calendar and scheduled a public hearing for March 16th.
That day more
than 20 people spoke out about their firsthand experiences of
jail conditions. For the first time the voices of the inmates,
ex-inmates, families of those who died in custody, and ex-employees
became a part of the discussion. Their testimonies were shocking
and heartrending; a condemnation so scathing that the supes found
it impossible to look these people in the eye and renew the contract.
So under the
gun of tremendous organized pressure, the supes finally took a
baby-step on the road to change with their call for proposals
from other medical providers. But our fear is that the county's
Public Health Dept. the only agency that could provide
jail medical services and would be fully accountable to the public
won't even be in the running. (Editor's Note: In fact,
the county's public health department didn't even put in a proposal
and in February, 2000, another outside corporation, California
Forensic Medical Group, took over.)
Just Try to Accredit
California Medical Association's Institute for Medical Quality
is currently deciding whether to reinstate the Sonoma County jail's
special accreditation, which was yanked in the wake of all the
medical deaths in the jail. The IMQ stamp of approval isn't required
to keep the doors open, but appears to be a way to stave off lawsuits,
with the medical board asserting that the jail facility and its
delivery of medical care meet "community standards," legalese
for "can't be sued successfully."
Once the public
began to show concern about the wave of inmate deaths in 1997/98,
Sheriff Piccinini immediately pointed to this special plum the
jail had won. Since that time, our outreach at the jail has included
materials showing inmates and defense attorneys how to submit
complaints to the IMQ about treatment in the jail. With firsthand
accounts of medical treatment flowing to the accreditation board,
it's unlikely that Pitch will be able to pull out that plum again
next time. (See Jail Medical
What's Left to Be
proud of what a hardy band of activists and some very courageous
inmates, former inmates and their families have been able to accomplish,
but we're not done yet.
disappointment is that we've been unsuccessful in our calls for
an outside, independent investigation into the deaths and to get
jail medical services provided by the county's health department
the only agency fully accountable to the public for its
actions. Please let the Board of Supervisors know you want real
accountability call or write your district supervisor.
Board of Supervisors
575 Administration Dr.,
#100-A Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Footnote) Mark Ihde was brought down
in 1997 by persistent and widespread criticism of his department's
Neanderthal handling of domestic violence, culminating with the
homicide of Teresa Macias on April 15, 1996. Capt. Casey Howard's
claim to fame was his drunk driving arrest on June 8, 1997, after
he ran over his wife's head in their driveway. The Purple Berets'
repeated "tire track" street actions finally made it too embarrassing
for the department to keep Casey on. He retired, citing "hearing
loss" in 1998. (Obviously his hearing was too bad to hear his
wife yelling, "Casey, STOP!") (Back)