Inside the walls of the Sonoma County Jail, an influx of inmates is straining a worn-out workforce.
Realignment of the state prison system in 2011 has sent thousands of prisoners to local jails to ease prison crowding. It has brought more inmates to the Sonoma County Jail serving longer sentences for more serious offenses — but the number of correctional deputies has not risen.
Sheriff Steve Freitas said his department has the staff to oversee a population of about 850 inmates, far fewer than the nearly 1,200 inmates actually housed at the jail.
To address the staffing shortage, Freitas said correctional deputies have averaged between 60 to 80 hours of overtime each month. “And they’ve been doing that for five years,” he said.
“When you are on the end of a 16-hour day, are you performing as well as you did in the first hour? Or if you haven’t had a day off in eight days, that has to have some type of impact,” Freitas said.
The actions of jail staff have come under scrutiny inside and outside the Sheriff’s Office in the wake of two recent civil rights lawsuits that allege correctional deputies used excessive force to subdue inmates. The county paid $1.25 million in January to settle one of the suits, filed by a Forestville man who was shocked 23 times with a Taser while being booked into the jail on New Years Eve 2012 on drunken-driving charges.
Freitas said lawsuits involving jails are common with a group of people “that don’t want to be there,” and the allegations contained in the lawsuits vary in veracity. He said the lawsuits are not an indication of any systemic problems at the jail.
When asked whether the amount of overtime played into the actions of staff during incidents highlighted in the lawsuits, Freitas said he “doesn’t know that they play specifically into recent incidents,” but added that exhaustion is a potential impact on staff performance that is taken seriously by the Sheriff’s Office.
Long before the Taser lawsuit was filed against his department, jail supervisors reviewed the 2012 New Years Eve incident. They quickly determined that changes were necessary — to both jail policies and equipment — to restrain unruly inmates more effectively, Freitas said. Still, no one was disciplined and the county admitted no liability in the Taser settlement, reached in January.
“We’re confident we think we put in place policies to where that won’t happen again,” Freitas said. “We evaluated ourselves and went, ‘That’s not what we’re looking for.’ ”
Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker, who runs the jail, said new strategies have been instituted for controlling unruly inmates, including two new restraint devices to prevent inmate and staff injuries, and they’ve adopted more training in defusing potentially volatile situations.
Walker said no one was disciplined after the 2012 incident because deputies didn’t have “the tools they needed in that situation, on that night.
“I can’t blame them for not having the tools. That’s my fault,” Walker said.
In the second civil rights lawsuit, six men allege correctional deputies systematically beat them on a single day last year. The Sheriff’s Office has strongly disputed the claims, which its spokeswoman terms “outrageous and inflammatory accusations.”