San Mateo County is moving to soundproof portions of its new jail following complaints that defense attorneys and medical professionals were often unable to have confidential, privileged conversations with inmates.

The issue sparked a local defense attorney to file a lawsuit Friday against the county and its Sheriff’s Office for what she described as violations against inmates’ constitutional rights to effective representation. Defense attorneys Paula Canny and Robert Canny, also siblings, filed the case that asks a judge to order the county rectify the “unconstitutional and illegal conditions” at the new $165 million Maple Street Correctional Center, according to the lawsuit.

County Counsel John Beiers said the lawsuit is unwarranted, as staff has been working to make improvements at the jail. On Tuesday, Jan. 23, the Board of Supervisors is poised to approve a $118,000 contract for enhancements that include soundproofing rooms used by medical professionals and defense attorneys to meet privately with inmates. The construction contract also includes providing more “contact” rooms where attorneys can meet face to face with clients, and installing security cameras in the kitchen where female inmates are often supervised by male staff, according to a county staff report.

Paula Canny said she’s pleased the county is finally making some progress toward resolving the unacceptable conditions, but is frustrated that it’s been more than a year since the issue was first brought to the attention of officials.

“It never should have taken this long for it to be addressed, it was a problem the day the facility opened,” Canny said. “Repairs need to start immediately, because the current condition is illegal and unacceptable.”

The new jail, which opened in Redwood City in mid-2016, generally prohibits in-person visitations, instead forcing inmates and their families to communicate via video. Attorneys are sometimes allowed to meet with clients in person, but often while separated by a glass barrier. That requires them to speak loudly through a metal grate, according to the lawsuit. Often, their conversations can be heard by third parties, which impedes an attorney’s ability to effectively communicate with their clients and affects inmates’ Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel, according to the lawsuit.

“Inmates have a constitutional right to be able to talk to their lawyers without fear that what they’re saying is being heard by third parties. The cornerstone of the criminal justice system is effective communication between clients and their lawyer,” Canny said.

Sometimes, attorneys are allowed “contact” meetings with inmates where they’re able to meet face to face. However, the jail’s procedure of strip searching inmates following meetings with their attorney consequentially has a chilling effect on the attorney-client relationship, according to the suit.

With many of her clients having not been to trial and unable to afford bail, Canny said the system unfairly penalizes the poor by curbing their access to legal representation. While the suit seeks attorneys fees, Canny said she would be happy to drop the matter and not seek reimbursement if improvements are made immediately.

Beiers noted staff has been working to improve the facilities at the jail and that Canny was notified of the progress prior to her filing a civil case.

“We are bewildered that Ms. Canny has filed this unwarranted and pointless lawsuit. She and other legal and medical professionals brought the need to increase sound absorption in attorney visitation rooms to the attention of county staff late last year and were told that the county would work to address the issue,” Beiers said in an email. “In any event, now that the lawsuit has been filed, the county will vigorously defend itself and work diligently to protect the monies entrust to it by all county residents.”  

Beiers noted Canny had been advised of the efforts to soundproof the rooms and was provided options to meet with clients in private. Canny was not initially aware Monday that the board was slated to take action this week, and said while her goal isn’t to waste anyone’s time in court, she isn’t ready to drop the suit until the situation is rectified.

Supervisors will consider a $118,000 allocation to hire CML Security to soundproof and upgrade the inmate visiting areas by increasing the number of attorney contact as well as non-contact visiting rooms. The Private Defenders’ Program has also identified a reluctance for some to use the non-contact video machines based on the overall impersonal contact, according to the staff report.

State legislation in 2016 proposed requiring jails to provide in-person visitation, however, the governor vetoed the proposed law. At the time, the county estimated it could cost $6 million to implement such a program, a prediction that came just months after its $165 million new jail opened.

Sheriff’s Detective Sal Zuno said he could not comment on pending litigation, but noted the jail was built to meet or exceed standards.

Canny questioned why such critical issues about protecting confidential communication weren’t considered during the planning of the jail. She noted Santa Clara and San Francisco counties provide in-person visitation. It shouldn’t be inconvenient to meet with clients in person, and face-to-face conversations are critical to fostering trust between attorneys and those they’re representing, Canny argued.

“It’s really disappointing that when the facility was constructed and finished, that the people in charge of building the facility weren’t mindful of the inmate’s [constitutional] rights to have confidential communications with their attorneys,” Canny said. “While I’m mindful of [the county’s] desire to have institutional security, I think they should have built attorney-client rooms where we work at the same table and breathe the same air.”

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