SLO County Jail charges inmates for tampons. That’s a civil rights violation, lawsuit says

Boxes of tampons are displayed in a pharmacy, Monday, March 7, 2016, in New York.
Boxes of tampons are displayed in a pharmacy, Monday, March 7, 2016, in New York. AP

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office has been charging female inmates for tampons in violation of their civil rights, a Bay Area attorney says in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Paula Canny — who won a $5 million settlement for the family of Andrew Holland, an Atascadero man who died in County Jail last year — filed a lawsuit demanding the county provide tampons free of charge and, after a thorough accounting, refund all money paid by inmates.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of past, present and future female inmates and names Sheriff Ian Parkinson, the Sheriff’s Office and the county as defendants.

It alleges the county is in violation of Title 15 Minimum Standards for Local Detention Facilities civil rights requirements by requiring female inmates pay $3.23 for a box of 10 tampons.

Adult Title 15 laws in part establish minimum standards for the operation of detention facilities, and state: “Each female inmate shall be issued sanitary napkins and/or tampons as needed.”

The county had not been served with the complaint by Thursday morning, but San Luis Obispo County Counsel Rita Neal said after reviewing a copy provided by The Tribune that the county is in compliance with Title 15 by providing all female inmates sanitary napkins at no charge, even though tampons must be bought through the commissary.

“Cell supplies are provided each day, and part of that is ensuring the female inmates have sanitary napkins in their cells,” Neal wrote in an email. “If a female inmate would like tampons, she is able to purchase them through commissary for $3.23 for 10.

“This practice is consistent and in compliance with Title 15.”

According to the lawsuit, SLO County policy states: “personal hygiene items ... will be provided in accordance with applicable laws and regulations” and later makes a directive that an indigent woman may receive materials as appropriate to “the special hygiene needs of women.”

Enforcement of Title 15 laws falls under the regulatory purview of the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), which regularly inspects county jails for compliance.

But compliance is voluntary, a spokeswoman for the agency previously told The Tribune, and the state has no regulatory power to force local governments to correct violations.

The San Luis Obispo County Jail has been in violation of several Title 15 laws, according to past inspection reports and a June 2017 Grand Jury report that examined jail safety following a series of inmate deaths.

An inspection in September 2016, less than four months before Holland died after being held in a restraint chair for 46 straight hours in a cell meant to house inebriated inmates, found seven violations, including jail staff housing non-inebriated inmates in the sobering cells.

The county responded to Tribune questions about the violation saying it would continue the practice because it allows “maximum visibility and offers direct observation” from staff working in that pod.

BSCC spokeswoman Tracie Cone told The Tribune that it’s “not uncommon” for jails to ignore Title 15 violations in adult facilities; a past state Attorney General’s Office opinion said because the state agency does not fund jails to come into compliance, it can’t force them to do so.

“The only remedy ... is a lawsuit,” Cone said.

The county has not yet filed a response in court. A case management conference has been scheduled for June 25.

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