SAN JOSE — Corrections officers are suing Santa Clara County on behalf of their greatest antagonists – inmates – claiming that low staffing levels have made the area’s jails unsafe.
The union for more than 750 local jail officers filed the federal lawsuit Tuesday in San Jose and believes the case is unprecedented.
The lawsuit contends that the county’s failure to hire more corrections officers has created conditions that violate the inmates’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
As examples, the union claims that violence among prisoners and attacks on guards are on the rise; that attorney-inmate visits are regularly suspended; that jail hygiene is poor; and that inmates do not regularly receive mail and timely medical care.
“We are now declaring to the courts that we cannot perform our job to the expectations that the law requires,” said Richard T. Abbate, president of the county Correctional Peace Officers Association. “There’s been several different days, several shifts, with such low staffing that if inmates knew how really bad it was, we would be in trouble.”
County attorney Ann Ravel called the case “just another one of a series of meritless, totally baseless lawsuits filed by this organization.”
She said the officers are exaggerating conditions in the county’s jails as part of their quest for higher pay.
“There is a lower inmate population, and staffing levels have remained fairly constant,” she said.
“People are working longer hours, but nevertheless the staffing levels have remained appropriate.”
There are no unsafe conditions, either for the workers or for the inmates.”
The lawsuit asks that the court order Santa Clara County to adequately staff its jails.
For example, in the county’s main jail, the union says there should be 57 workers per shift. The lawsuit claims that since last year there have been only 40 officers per shift, and occasion, just 32.
Abbate said the union did not believe it would have standing to sue the county on behalf of the corrections officers themselves, so the case was filed in support of the inmates’ civil rights.
He said there are between 4,440 and 4,800 inmates in the Santa Clara County corrections system, which holds both people charged with crimes and convicts serving sentences.