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‘It’s scary in there’: Delayed and denied medical care a chronic issue at Sonoma County Jail

All he said the jail has promised him is, “If you end up going to prison, you can take care of it there.”

Essick said he could not respond directly to Lozano’s issue, but said generally, “I would be surprised to learn if an inmate was in custody for eight months and had not been seen by a physician for a complaint like that. … If it’s a dermatology or oncology thing like that, we don’t try to fake it — we send it out.

“My expectation would be at the next available sick call, at minimum, a nurse would meet with the inmate, talk to the inmate see what the complaint is and schedule a visit from the (physician assistant) or (medical doctor).”

Detainee Richard Jump, 57, who has his own medical issues, began helping younger people at the jail file complaints about access to care after witnessing Gonzalez, Lozano and others’ experiences.

“I’ve never seen the conditions so bad here,” he said. “I’ve been coming here before this was built — I was in the old jail. It’s just in the last two years they’re turning their head.”

Having struggled with drugs his whole life, he’s been in and out of jail. In his most recent stint, he came in suffering from high blood pressure, asthma and chronic pain from a prior broken back and neck.

Though he puts in regular requests for help, he said, “Half the time they don’t respond to it. Everybody you talk to in here will tell you it doesn’t happen — you’ll get seen a month later instead of the week it’s supposed to be.”

Others who have since been released also recall experiences of belated or inadequate care.

Jesus Xavier Carrillo, who was jailed last year on suspicion of probation violation, said he had a similar experience after his ingrown toenail went untreated and became infected.

What began as a throbbing toenail soon became an oozing, swollen wound as he waited for medical staff to come see him, Carrillo said.

He said he received one antibiotic pill while in jail and was only prescribed the full round once he went to the emergency room after he was sent home in October, more than a month after he reported the ingrown toenail to the staff.

Essick said he was not aware of cases where medical calls were not handled promptly and appropriately. He said “once in a blue moon” he has received complaints regarding jail medical care from family of detainees directly, though he is “not down in the nitty-gritty decisions.”

“If we have an incident, I get apprised,” he said.

Heather Wise, a lawyer who often represents indigent clients in the jail, considers these stories “par for the course.”

“I have seen people stabilized, getting the care they need, and I’ve also seen clients … who have had medical issues not addressed,” Wise said. “There’s all kinds of horror stories.”

One client, she said, had a dislocated elbow that was not treated for two months while he was held at the jail. It got so bad, she said, after he was released, the doctor needed to cut his elbow open to mend it.

Another of her incarcerated clients had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He needed a machine to help him breathe, and the jail did not provide a clean one and distilled water to put in it.

Wise pointed out that many people in custody are pretrial detainees, meaning they haven’t been found guilty of any crime and are presumed innocent.

Izaak Schwaiger, a civil rights lawyer who has successfully sued the sheriff’s office over police misconduct, said he has received at least 16 credible reports of medical neglect at the jail over the past two years.

The county’s watchdog agency has received two formal complaints that allege violations of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office’s policies concerning medical care in the past year, according to Interim Director Garrick Byers.

County ‘responsible for their health and welfare’

County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who was closely involved in the approval of the recent Wellpath contract, said Sonoma County’s problems mirror those across the country.

“There may be medical neglect, or it may just be they are not having timely response, which points to the challenges of staffing — and, again, this is a nationwide issue,” she said.

Essick put more of the blame on Wellpath.

“The county of Sonoma and the county taxpayer are shelling out a substantial amount of money for these medical services, and we’re not getting the staffing we were promised,” he said.

Short of pulling the contract with Wellpath altogether, Essick said the Sheriff’s Office and county have two options to enforce the contract’s staffing terms: suing the company or withholding payment. Both, though, require proof of a pattern.