California guard says he did not touch inmate found dead

7 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Guard proclaims innocence in death of California prison inmate.

One of three California jail guards arrested on suspicion of murder in the death of an inmate has proclaimed his innocence, saying he never touched the 31-year-old man. Rafael Rodriguez told the San Jose Mercury News that the guard uniform he wore on the night authorities say he and two other officers entered inmate Michael Tyree’s cell was clean, showing no signs that he made contact with the inmate.

To the inmates housed in the county’s Main Jail and their relatives, the answer is simple: Ongoing complaints of excessive force, and the death — so rare there hasn’t been a similarly tragic incident since the mid-1990s — underscore fundamental problems in the handling of thousands of inmates each year in the county’s jails. “I would think it would be irrational and unreasonable to assume something would rise to this level of lethal abuse and not think there was some milder, less lethal activities going on that allowed officers to think, ‘Hey, this is OK,’ “ said Raj Jayadev of Silicon Valley DeBug, a local civil rights group. Santa Clara County’s sheriff, Laurie Smith, her voice breaking and eyes tearing up, apologised on Thursday to Tyree’s family and said “the disappointment and disgust I feel cannot be overstated”. In 2014, the county’s Office of Human Relations foreshadowed the problem, reporting in its annual review that the jails have been an ongoing source of concern. “Officer treatment of inmates is a recurring source of calls,” Kate Jones, a human relations coordinator, wrote. “Reports of unnecessary rough handling and verbal insults occur regularly,” although callers acknowledged “that only some correctional officers are unnecessarily rough.” There also is anecdotal evidence of institutional flaws, including a growing number of inmate deaths from natural causes and suicide in recent years, particularly compared with other Bay Area jails.

The county also has had to shell out more than $300,000 since 2010 to settle lawsuits over excessive force in the jail, although none of them for incidents of the magnitude of Tyree’s beating death, according to county records provided to this newspaper. Smith, who was given total control of the county’s corrections department three years ago in a cost-saving move, has appeared to already acknowledge reforms are needed. Smith called it the result of a “violent and cowardly” act, and District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s office is now reviewing whether to file formal charges. Prisoner rights advocates say Santa Clara’s jail policies, particularly its use of solitary confinement to house even mentally troubled inmates, have raised the possibility of a lawsuit. “We have an open invitation to work with the sheriff,” said Kelly Knapp, a lawyer with the Prison Law Office, a Berkeley-based nonprofit public interest law firm that represents local and state inmates. “It would save her and the county countless dollars if we can work this out cooperatively. But when forced to, we litigate.” Ernest Galvan, a San Francisco lawyer who often represents inmates in jail and prison cases, said a simple first step for the county is to bring in an independent expert to identify what he called the “stress points” in the jail’s culture.

Santa Clara County jails are run on a hybrid model, with Sheriff’s Office oversight but rank-and-file jail officers working through a separate Department of Correction. But in 2010, supervisors put jail oversight back under the sheriff, hoping to eliminate administrative redundancies amid severe budget-tightening — a move voters blessed two years later.

But the union that represents deputy sheriffs says Smith’s administration — over its objections — recently replaced about a dozen deputies who helped supervise the jails with correctional officers, who have far less training and experience. Correction officers get about 200 hours of basic training, compared with 888 for sworn deputies, and are restricted to jail duties with limited authority outside its walls. He compared the situation to the Rampart Division scandal involving Los Angeles police, in which younger, less experienced officers who worked undesirable night and weekend shifts were essentially given a free hand to commit misconduct.

Jethroe Moore of the local chapter of the NAACP said Tyree’s death shows “there needs to be more modernization of the jails to handle mental health cases.” “We have a transparent organization and always open to constructive criticism and any feedback we can get,” she said. “We want to do a better job in the future.”

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