A consultant hired to assess conditions in the Montgomery County Jail revealed Tuesday that use of force incidents occur regularly. And while the jail has two use of force policies, neither provides clear guidance to corrections officers at the jail named in 13 lawsuits — two over deaths — for allegedly mistreating inmates.
“We have a little bit of a concern with this,” Brad Sassatelli, a CGL Companies consultant, told members of the Justice Advisory Committee.
An examination from January 2017 through March of this year found 269 use of force incidents reported in the jail, most in the intake area and attributed to new admissions entering the facility who were either intoxicated or unwilling to comply with staff direction and orders, Sassatelli said.
He said the county jail’s first policy addresses incidents of deadly force such as the discharge of firearms more likely to cover deputies in the field.
“When you read it, it is generally designed for law enforcement staff, it doesn’t reference the jail much at all,” Sassatelli said.
The second policy, in Montgomery County’s jail manual, emphasizes procedural matters and staff response to emergencies, but provides limited guidance regarding use of force principles, he said.
“The main order doesn’t really address that we have some concerns that there needs to be a more developed jail policy for jail staff specifically that becomes the one-stop shop where they can review policy and understand exactly what’s expected of them,” Sassatelli said. “Policies exist for a reason. It should be a guide book for staff to act upon. So if I need to understand what to do in terms of a use of force incident, I should be able to go to the policy, read it and clearly understand the expected actions that I need to take.”
Sassatelli said once a use of force incident is reported in the jail, the investigations are generally thorough and well-documented, including a step-by-step review process to make sure an employee has complied with policy. Despite the actions taken after use of force incidents, the lawsuits against the county jail are mounting and could exceed $10 million for the county and its insurers, said Montgomery County Commission President Debbie Lieberman.
CGL pulled 11 use of force cases for a random review, including situations in which inmates were placed in a restraint chair, forcibly taken to the ground, fighting with other detainees, or found in possession of drugs. The review by CGL found excessive force was an issue in three of the 11 randomly selected cases, but action was taken to correct staff performance.
Dr. Gary LeRoy, a justice committee co-chairman, said the group is now starting to get some hard evidence to fulfill the task of providing county commissioners with recommendations to improve jail operations. The committee, formed in March 2017 to head off a federal civil rights investigation into the treatment of inmates at the jail, has been criticized by some for getting off to a slow start, but will soon be conducting random interviews with inmates as well as hold public forums to gauge others’ experience with the jail.
“We are not treading water anymore, we are actually getting vital information from CGL and from our surveys and our listening sessions,” LeRoy said. “It’s very obvious we will begin swimming and swimming in the deep end of the water.”
Neither Sheriff Phil Plummer, a non-voting member of the committee, nor a jail leadership representative attended Tuesday’s meeting.
CGL’S study also found that the use of the three restraint chairs at the jail has increased. During 2017 inmates were restrained 77 times, or an average of 6.4 a month. In 2018 through May, the devices have been used to restrain inmates 57 times, or an average of 11 instances a month.
“When you look at the (current) policy regarding restraint chairs specifically, it’s unclear whether it’s considered a use of force,” Sassatelli said. “We believe it should be considered a use of force. It should be used in cases where it’s the last alternative.”
Sassatelli said the jail should review the increase of restraint chair use and also require intervention by mental health and medical staff whenever an inmate is put in the device.
One inmate, Amber Swink, was paid a $375,000 settlement last year resulting from a 2015 incident in which she was pepper sprayed while immobilized in a seven-point restraint chair.
At last month’s meeting, Sassatelli and his CGL colleague George Vose began laying out shortfalls of the jail ranging from a shortage of staff overseeing a facility running over capacity. The layout of the jail also proves problematic, made up of “a maze of walk-throughs” with narrow hallways and sudden turns where inmates could surprise officers, they said. Some cells are arranged in a linear format, limiting the visibility of inmates to officers. Only one officer supervises each floor of inmates, and each floor houses 80 to 90 inmates.
“Think about that,” Vose said. “That’s 80 to 90 inmates that you can’t see.”
On Tuesday, Sassatelli brought up other concerns over housing and classification of inmates, which is “imperative to operating a facility.”
Because the facility has only three housing units. All female offenders regardless of security or mental health status are housed in double cells and a small dormitory. Men with different security risks are also housed throughout the facility double-bunked and in dormitory units.
Ideally, a facility should contain multiple units to segregate those with different security risks — from maximum to minimum — as well as provide separate housing options for detainees with mental illness, which the jail lacks, Sassatelli said.
On Tuesday, the jail housed 770 inmates, 617 men and 153 women, according to the county.
The most recent lawsuit filed against the jail is a class-action federal civil suit brought by inmates against Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer seeking from overcrowding and related issues, similar to a 1989 action that led to construction of the building’s newer section.
The named plaintiffs, Nicholas Alston and Keith Barber, were among 16 inmates who wrote a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Walter Rice detailing allegations of cruel and unusual punishment at the hands of corrections officers. The complaint cited a November 2016 state inspection report calling for a recommended inmate population of 443.
LeRoy said the committee’s work is expected to wrap up by the end of the year when it will make “practical, common-sense recommendations” to county commissioners and the sheriff’s office “in a prioritized order so that we can stop any kind of injustices that are happening in the jail.”