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Report from the Frontlines of
the Jail Struggle

Only days 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.

Since that 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.

Jail SolidarityPurple Berets Actions
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.

Among the 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.

Four years after Joanie Holmes' tragic death, here's a look at where things stand.

McDermott Throws 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. (* Footnote)

McDermott's 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.

Fire Correctional Medical Services!
On 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.

That February 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 This!
The 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 Alert!)

What's Left to Be Done?
We're 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.

Our biggest 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)


© Tanya Brannan, Purple Berets
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