California Jail Working to Improve Conditions for Inmates with Mental Illness

The 2015 death of 31-year-old inmate Michael Tyree in a Santa Clara County jail has expedited the county’s efforts to improve jail conditions for inmates. During a March 16th meeting of the county’s Public Safety and Justice Committee, Sheriff Laurie Smith, who has been in office since 1998, laid out her proposal for a 13-point plan that would, among other initiatives, increase officer training and give inmates improved access to mental health services in all of the county’s jails.

Tyree’s death made headlines in 2015 when he was found dead and severely beaten inside of his cell. Three officers at the Sara Clara County jail were accused of murdering Tyree, as well beating another inmate named Juan Villa. Both Tyree and Villa suffered from mental illness, sparking several controversies about how inmates with mental health issues should be classified and treated. The officers will stand trial on charges of murder and assault.

While Sheriff Smith said many of the initiatives proposed in her 13-point plan were already in place before Tyree’s death, the county is making a concerted effort to improve its handling of inmates with mental illness. Specifically, Smith proposed the following initiatives:

  • The county would formulate a specialized team prepared to de-escalate crisis situations involving inmates with mental illness
  • The county would appoint an independent inspector general, who would monitor the jails’ mental health services
  • Inmates would be given increased access to mental health services upon release from the jails
  • The jails would have an on-call team for significant use of force incidents
  • The county would establish an inmate grievances tracking system with options for inmates to better specify their complaints
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Smith also detailed initiatives that would improve the Jail Classification System and raise the minimum education standard of a high school diploma for a correctional deputy. County Public Defender Molly O’Neal said that increasing the educational requirements for officers would lead to better treatment of inmates and, in turn, fewer inmate complaints.