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Independent oversight

The recent Department of Justice report on the SLO County Jail highlights need for a citizens' commission

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Dear members of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors: John Peschong, Bruce Gibson, Dawn Ortiz-Legg, Lynn Compton, and Debbie Arnold.

We are shocked, disappointed, and saddened by the findings of the Department of Justice in its recent report on our county jail. That so many serious infractions continue even after the adjustments made following the death of Andrew Holland is unacceptable and requires immediate response.

The report notes that some time ago the jail hired the chief medical officer of the San Diego County Sheriff's Office to conduct an audit of the jail's medical and mental health services, which identified the need for centralized oversight of prisoner health care. While a better centralized system has been brought to the jail, the needs of the inmates have not been heard nor has their care significantly improved.

After listing serious shortcomings in medical screening, diagnosis, treatment, and continuity of care, the report states that the jail appears to be callously indifferent to prisoners' requests for medical and mental health services, placing them at risk of serious harm and even death. The report cites excessive use of force and the subjection of mentally ill prisoners to prolonged use of restrictive housing, which keeps them isolated and exacerbates their symptoms. These prisoners are also denied equal access to services, programs, and activities because of their disabilities, which violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

These are failures that violate prisoners' constitutional rights guaranteed by the Eighth and 14th Amendments. It is the jail's "disregard to obvious risks to health and safety" which has developed a culture within our jail that has led to the "pattern and practice" that the Department of Justice deems must be improved. The report outlines dozens of infractions, which, at minimum, must be rectified quickly or legal action will ensue.

It is your responsibility to ensure that these conditions are rectified immediately to protect the health and safety of the prisoners and to ensure that further violations of civil rights do not occur at our jail. We call upon you to form an independent citizens' oversight commission using AB 1185 to monitor the operation of the jail and review grievances that arise. This independent commission must be composed of civilians who can assist the board with its duties required pursuant to section 25303 that relate to overseeing the sheriff. The bill authorizes the chair of the oversight board and the inspector general to issue a subpoena or subpoena duces tecum when deemed necessary to investigate a matter within their jurisdiction.

It is only through independent oversight that we can be assured that effective change will happen. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) has a moral obligation to ensure that the population of the jail will be humanely treated and receive the care that is guaranteed to them as their constitutional right. We will be doing that by holding you accountable to improve the operations within our county jail. Δ

The members of NAMI San Luis Obispo County's board of directors wrote this commentary—Pam Zweifel, Donna Klein, Nancy Griffin, John Klimala, Aurora William, Lynda Cohen, and Diana Wilson. Send a response for publication to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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