Last year was an election year for the role of Monterey County sheriff, a role that includes not just law enforcement but also corrections, with the responsibility of running the Monterey County Jail. During an election year, naturally, there was a lot of attention on how candidates would improve conditions for inmates.
But the sobering reality remains: People are still dying in the county jail.
On Jan. 4, just five days after newly elected Sheriff Tina Nieto was sworn in, a person in custody was discovered dead, from an apparent hanging, the Sheriff’s Office reports. Other than that, little information has been made available in the three weeks since, other than to say that the coroner’s unit from Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office has been brought in to investigate. This is a good thing – a third party investigating an in-custody death, rather than the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office investigating itself – even if answers are slow to materialize.
“We’re looking at, how do we increase transparency and trust,” says Undersheriff Keith Boyd. “Families want answers and deserve answers. We never want to rush coming to a conclusion as to the manner and cause of death. If you try to provide a quick answer, the [more complete] answer can be shorted.”
More complete answers are critical. At least two families of inmates who died in the jail in the past year suspect their family members were murdered, and still want a full accounting of what happened.
But beyond getting comprehensive answers to grieving families, the underlying problems remain. Deaths from illness and suicide persist. A disproportionate number of inmates suffer from mental health challenges, inside a facility that was designed as a correctional facility with a purpose of punishing people, not treating people.
This disconnect was the subject of a 2013 class-action lawsuit filed by inmates against the county jail and its contracted medical provider, Wellpath. (Wellpath operates in over 350 local jails and more than 135 federal and state prisons in the U.S.) Under the terms of a 2015 settlement, the jail and Wellpath are required to provide improved medical, dental and mental health care to inmates.
The settlement takes into account the difficult realities of the jail, specifically the awareness that not every crisis can be prevented – the agreement calls for “substantial compliance,” not 100-percent.
But if your loved one goes to jail and never returns, it looks far short of substantial.
Despite that, on Nov. 22, Sheriff’s Capt. Jim Bass presented to the County Board of Supervisors, seeking their approval for an extension of the Wellpath contract, at a cost of over $44.3 million, through Dec. 31, 2025 – the duration of the legal settlement agreement.
There are a few changes in the new contract, primarily in the form of Wellpath salary increases – “That should help with recruitment and retention,” Bass told the supervisors – and more staff. New positions include two full-time psychiatric positions, a full-time mental health coordinator and a discharge planner to help inmates leaving custody reintegrate as they leave the jail.
But a health care worker inside the jail, who spoke with the Weekly on the condition of anonymity, says an exodus of Wellpath employees continues. In the final weeks of 2022, multiple nurses and a dentist resigned, and on two Saturday nights in December, there was no nurse on shift able to dispense medications, so patients missed a dose. Since then, Wellpath brought in a new management team but the turnover has not stopped; two more nurses resigned just in the past week.
Meanwhile, there has been no director of nursing onsite since May of last year. And also last year, the company’s regional director lost her clearance to the jail amid an investigation into missing prescription pain medications.
Wellpath did not respond to requests for comment.
The Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to approve the contract extension with little discussion and no questions asked. “I know you really have the best interest of the inmates at heart,” then-chair Mary Adams said. “As we move forward with this contract, it’ll be something all of us are keeping a close eye on.”
Families of inmates especially are keeping a close eye on it, and hoping for the best.