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ProPublica and The Sacramento Bee have been reporting on the crisis in jails across California.
We’ve written about jail homicides, suicides and the outdated facilities that can make life inside more dangerous.
As we have reported on these serious systemic issues, more than 100 people who have been incarcerated, had a family member incarcerated or represented a client inside have reached out to us to share their stories.
While there is no statewide guide for how to navigate California’s jails, local authorities are required by law to design an inmate orientation program, which should be published and provided to inmates when they are placed in a living area. We know some county jails make handbooks with rules. But when we asked the respondents to our questionnaire, plus several others via Instagram direct message, if they’d ever received such a handbook, most said they hadn’t.
The California Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), which is tasked with maintaining minimum jail standards and inspecting local facilities, told us jails will sometimes post these rules on the walls or show inmates orientation videos. Spokesperson Tracie Cone said in an email that if the BSCC found in an inspection that an agency wasn’t giving out orientation information in a way that meets the law, “we would notify the agency that they were out of compliance.”
But respondents to our questionnaire said that when they did see a handbook, the rules in them weren’t followed or the information wasn’t useful.
Our reporting team looked through jail rules and laws, many of which are long, complicated and vague, to pull out some specific answers. We asked lawyers, civil rights activists and dozens of former inmates and their family members for advice beyond what the jails provide. They passed along some links, street smarts and resources, which we’ve compiled here.
Note: The jails are complicated, and the way they work on the inside can be different, depending on your county. We tried to highlight points relevant to readers all over the state, but it’s entirely possible that we’ve missed a detail or that individual experiences might be different. Please let us know if you have questions by emailing email@example.com. What you tell us could help us make this resource better and more complete, and it could even help us report future stories.
1.) Know your rights.
What are the laws?
Counties can run their jails a bit differently, so get to know your local jail’s rules first. Starting on Jan. 1, a new law says sheriff’s offices, which run almost all county jails, have to put standards, policies and procedures on their websites.
If you still can’t find your jail’s rules online, you or your family members can request a copy of the information inmates are supposed to receive by calling or emailing your county sheriff’s office. If the county tells you the handbook is not online, ask for an email address you could use to request it through the California Public Records Act (more information on that below).
People in California have specific rights promised by the state:
- 1.) Issues related to life inside the jails, like health care, mental health, nutrition, mail and discipline, are covered by Title 15. You can read the section on jails here.
- 2.) Issues related to jail buildings are covered by Title 24, which is the state building code.
Inmates have rights protected by the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act. New cases are decided every year that set examples of ways inmates can use these laws. To read more about federal laws, check out the resources we’ve linked to at the bottom of this guide.
If you need help understanding your rights.
You might find these rules confusing. Many of the laws are vague. Groups and lawyers around the state can help you figure out your rights. It will take some research to find people that do this work in your county. Here are some prominent groups:
2. People told us that they or a loved one had difficulties getting medication and medical treatment while incarcerated. It’s helpful to keep records of anything correctional officers and other jail staff say or do to you or your loved one.
To keep track, you can file grievances (read more about that process below), tell a loved one what’s happening over a phone call they record or take notes — even if that’s with pencils and paper from the commissary.
- Stay in touch with people on the outside, like family and civil rights organizations. If something goes wrong, try to tell someone on the outside about it, said Forrest Jones, who was incarcerated this year in Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail. Send them any proof you can use as a backup, he added.
- Tell the truth about your medical condition during your initial booking process with jail medical staff.
If your loved one on the inside needs help:
- Reach out if you need help with mental health or medical-related issues, but pick the right moment. Not all inmates are able to advocate for themselves — like those with severe mental illnesses. If families are advocating on their behalf, Ventura County defense attorney Danielle Tamir recommends they avoid bombarding the jails with questions, but always contact jail staff if they want to talk about mental health- or medical-related issues.
- Get access to inmate medical records. Tamir recommends faxing a HIPAA release form to the jail to get permission to look at a loved one’s records. Your loved one will need to sign it, too, and an attorney can help with that. Call your local jail to get a copy of this form. You might be asked to send in a form with a copy of your ID and proof of address.
- Provide inmate medical history to the jails. Families should send information about a loved one’s current medications and medical and psychiatric history directly to the jail. Mark Gale of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Los Angeles County Council created a form to do this for Los Angeles County, and that form has been adapted for some other county jails. They’re available here. If your county doesn’t have a form, you can find direct phone numbers for medical and mental health care on your sheriff’s website.
3. If you ask for help for yourself or someone you know and don’t get a response, keep asking respectfully.
People told us being persistent helped get them wins on the inside and the outside.
- If you need help, ask for it often. Jones said he took his questions up the chain of command — corrections officers, nurses, and lieutenants and sergeants — when he needed medication in Santa Rita Jail, and he was able to get medicine within a couple days because he was “raising hell.” Always bring up mental health and medical issues, Tamir said, but don’t abuse the grievance process — “then you become the inmate who cried wolf and they don’t listen to anything you have to say.” If the grievance process isn’t getting you anywhere, she said, you can tell your attorney.
- Talk with service providers in the jail like teachers, chaplains, group leaders and medical staff. Garrett Webb, who’s been incarcerated a few times in Sonoma County Jail, was able to see a dentist after he talked to a jail service provider, said his girlfriend Sandi, who asked that we not publish her last name because she worried about her privacy.
If your loved one on the inside needs help:
- Don’t be afraid to ask for “reasonable accommodations” or changes to your loved one’s housing. Tim, who requested we not publish his last name to protect a family member, advocates for people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system in Humboldt County. He recommended calling the jail with questions, and following up in writing over email if it’s a serious matter. He’d asked about how his loved one was doing, he said, and he recommends being respectfully assertive. “If you just sit there and let the system kind of churn away, it doesn’t work as well as if you try to have some kind of input,” Tim said.
- If you’re calling the jail to ask for help, do your research to figure out who you need to speak with to make your time on the phone more efficient. Tamir said you can do this by talking to groups like NAMI and other advocacy groups and doing online research to figure out the right people to get in touch with about your issue.
4. Keep your mind occupied in solitary confinement.
The ethics of solitary are up for debate, but in the meantime, we know jails across the country use this punishment. So if you’re in this situation, former inmates say there are steps you can take to make the time less painful.
- Try to stay engaged. Allison Coleman was kept in administrative segregation — social isolation with a window in a cell, her lawyer said — in the Calaveras County Jail in 2016. Coleman had a pencil and paper when she was in administrative segregation and said that drawing and writing poetry and stories helped her cope. She called her experience “mind-breaking torture,” but she said that being creative helps. Because of pending litigation, Capt. Chris Hewitt of the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office said in an email that he was unable to respond to questions about Coleman’s case.
- Keep up a routine. Tasks like exercising or keeping your cell clean can give a sense of control while in solitary, said Keramet Reiter, a University of California, Irvine, associate professor in the criminology, law and society department, who has written a book about solitary confinement.
If your loved one on the inside needs help:
- Keep in touch. Putting money on an inmate’s account helps them get tools to make their time inside easier, Coleman said. Hearing about normal things helped Coleman, like receiving a picture her niece drew and getting a letter from her grandmother.
5. If you want to take legal action, ready yourself for a long road.
- Grievances can be important. Filing a grievance — which is a complaint inmates fill out in jail — can be a frustrating process, said Jose Bernal, who’s senior organizer and advocate for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit that advocates for shifting resources away from punishment. Putting in a grievance may not resolve an inmate’s issue. But he added that attorneys may use the grievances to show that the complaint route was exhausted.
- Find a lawyer, if you can. If cost is an issue, see if you can find someone to represent you pro bono. Check out the prominent groups we list in the rights section for more resources.
- Be ready for the process. Family members may decide to take legal action because they feel like they’re not being heard or that they are getting the runaround at the jails, said Alexis Amezcua, a San Francisco-based attorney who frequently represents families and people making claims in civil rights cases against the police. She represents a family whose son died in the Fresno County Jail in 2018. The process can be long and invasive, she said — and can include questions about medical records, work history and finances. “They have to ask themselves whether they are mentally and emotionally prepared for that task,” she said. She advises families to think about what they want out of a lawsuit.
- A Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual, a publication from Columbia Law School with legal rights and processes that’s designed to be used by people in prison.
- Two guidebooks:
- Protecting Your Health and Safety: A Litigation Guide for Inmates, by Robert E. Toone
- Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual, by John Boston and Daniel E. Manville.
And to talk to our reporting team, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To request information from your jail, send this in an email:
I would like to request the handbook or inmate orientation information for (fill in your county jail’s name).
I ask for these records pursuant to my rights under the California Public Records Act (Government Code Section 6250 et seq.). If there are any fees for searching or copying these records, please inform me of them. The California Public Records Act requires a response within 10 business days from receipt of the request.
If you want to read more, people we talked to recommended a few prominent resources: