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America's Jails: The Dungeons of the New Millenium
Although these disgraceful conditions are pervasive and by no means isolated, the mainstream media and society in general steadfastly refuse to recognize and address this important social issue. These systemic problems of corruption and abuse go largely ignored and unchecked despite the fact that jails, by their very nature, are located in the heart of our cities and towns where the corporate media focus their attention, unlike prisons, which are usually located in rural areas far from the centers of media and political power.
A few examples of the types of abuses that are occurring in local jails across the country are described below. Whether in a small town or a large city, the incidents all stem from either bureaucratic corruption, administrative ineptitude, or outright malevolence.
On Friday, August 25, 2000, Matt Cavalier, a convicted armed robber, was jailed for violating his parole when he failed a urine test for drugs. He anticipated being released to the community corrections program no later than Monday. However, on Sunday, August 27, he was found dead in his cell at the Bernalillo County Detention Center (BCDC) in Albuquerque. According to official records, Cavalier was lying on his bunk in a pool of vomit and blood for more than 20 hours before being discovered.
Prisoners say Cavalier was "killed twice." The first time he was "killed", members of the prison gang Syndicato Nuevo Mexico entered his cell and broke his neck. Cavalier didn't die immediately so gang members went back into his cell and strangled him. The gang, also known as The Syndicate, wanted Cavalier dead because he had testified against other gang members in an unrelated prison murder trial in Los Lunas.
Cavalier's family is suing the jail. Attorney Bruce Pasternack claims there were at least 20 to 30 opportunities to prevent or detect Cavalier's death. "The administration of this jail is beyond inadequate," Pasternack told reporters. "It is no longer following the norms of a decent and humane society."
Pasternack has a valid point. For example, the shift logs for Sunday show that 75 sack lunches were served on 3North, the unit where Cavalier was housed, and none were refused. Had procedures been followed Cavalier would have had to get out of bed and take his lunch from a jail guard. Standard jail orders also required guards to enter Cavalier's cell at 8:30 that morning to inspect it and make sure his bunk was made. These and other orders were not followed.
Moreover, jail logs show that Cavalier was present and accounted for during the various head counts made before his body was discovered. Although autopsy results show that Cavalier died between 4:00 and 6:00 P.M. Saturday evening, the guard who made the Saturday night count said in his report: "On my 2200 check I put everybody up and had a good count with body checks. Everything was fine. I personally got movement from everybody on my final check." The guard who conducted the Sunday morning count (which required him to inspect each cell and make sure the prisoners are awake) also reported nothing unusual.
It wasn't until about 2:00 P.M. Sunday that guards realized Cavalier was dead. His body was discovered when a lieutenant went to 3North with news that there was a body on the floor, information the jail had acquired from a local television reporter following up on a tip received from the girlfriend of a prisoner at the BCDC. Jail director John Dantis admitted that prisoners on 3 North were more familiar with daily operations than the guards. Dantis also conceded that guards "didn't follow policies and procedures."
Despite these concessions jail officials blame Cavalier for failing to request protective custody. As a former member of The Syndicate, officials claim that Cavalier should have known the danger of going into 3North where most gang members are kept. "The homicide was gang-related," Dantis said. "There aren't too many things you can do about that. There is no guarantee of 100 percent safety, in state prison or a county lockup."
But on the weekend Cavalier was jailed the BCDC was grossly overcrowded. Built for 586 prisoners, the jail holds nearly 800 on weekends. The jail was also seriously understaffed. Of the 470 guards normally required, the jail was between 70 to 100 guards short. Because of these staff shortages 3North only had two guards assigned to it. One worked the pod, while another remained in the control room. To make matters worse, the guards working 3North that weekend were extremely inexperienced. One guard had been on the job for only four months, including his four weeks of training.
"There is no way one officer, especially one with little experience, is going to be able to control that floor," Albuquerque Officers Association president Frank Gallegos said. "That is a maximum security unit." Gallegos suggested that an experienced guard would have "felt the tension on the floor," and could have prevented Cavalier's death. But that didn't happen. Instead, guards on at least two shifts reported everything quiet and normal.
Dantis admitted that he thinks understaffing is a serious problem. "You are at a constant crisis management level," he said. "Instead of planning, training, you move from one crisis to another."
Last year, the BCDC had one escape and a suicide in a special unit designed to prevent prisoners from killing themselves. Cavalier's was the third homicide in the past few years. No arrests have been made in the first two, but four gang membersRoy Martinez, Francisco Villalobos, Samuel Silva and Gerald Archuletahave been charged with murdering Cavalier. Dantis said that new guards failing to follow proper procedures were to blame for the other incidents as well. After being assaulted by guards at the Justice Center Jail in Portland, two men are dead and another injured. Two prisonersJon Beckel and James Luotowere restrained by guards at the jail and later taken to hospitals where they died. A third prisoner, Dennis Poe, says he was assaulted by guards but did not seek medical attention.
On June 22, 2000, Luoto was arrested for driving under the influence and a related auto accident, and was booked into the Portland jail. Three days later, on June 25, Luoto reportedly refused his diabetes medication, became disoriented, and ran down a hall. He was tackled by another prisoner and restrained by a guard.
After being fed lunch immediately following the incident, he was found unconscious, vomiting and choking. Luoto was taken to a hospital where he died on July 22. The medical examiner ruled that Luoto died as a result of the force used at the jail, but said there were no signs of abuse.
Beckel was picked up by police after falling while walking in downtown Portland on July 1. He was taken to a hospital where he received stitches above his eye. He was then booked into the Portland jail on unrelated drunk driving warrants.
During the booking process, Beckel got into a scuffle with guard Brad Mullens. Kathleen Jacobson, the guard who reported the incident, said Mullens gave Beckel two light, open-handed smacks to the head as "an attention getter." Eleven hours later Beckel suffered a seizure and was again taken to a hospital where he died. The medical examiner ruled that Beckel's death resulted from his earlier fall, not the altercation with Mullens. A grand jury has since cleared Mullens of any wrongdoing in the death.
On July 11, Poe was arrested for domestic violence charges and booked into the Portland jail. During processing, Poe was assaulted by guards for refusing to let them take his fingerprints and for not answering questions. Another guard reported the incident. According to his attorney, Randall Vogt, Poe suffered "abdominal-type injuries and has sought medical attention."
All of the assaults occurred in the booking area of the jail. In at least one case, two guards were discovered with tattoos on their forearms that read, "Brotherhood of the Strong." Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Noelle said he didn't know whether the tattoos were related but would investigate.
In all, five guards have either been placed on leave or fired as a result of investigations stemming from the assaults. Wallace Montoya, James Borja, and Rodger Cross have all been placed on administrative leave pending further investigation. Criminal charges haven't been filed, but Noelle said cases are open.
In addition to being placed on administrative leave, Sgt. Jeffrey Ristvet was charged with various misdemeanor offenses for his role in Poe's assault. He pleaded not guilty and was released on personal recognizance.
Although not implicated in the assaults, guard Michael Foster was discovered with a "Brotherhood of the Strong" tattoo. He has since been fired for not being truthful during a background check.
The families of the dead prisoners and Poe have sued the jail. Sheriff Noelle has since requested both the FBI and the National Institute of Corrections to assist in an investigation. Chuck Paulson, a lawyer representing Beckel's and Luoto's families, called the sheriff's requests for an outside investigation a public relations maneuver. "Dan Noelle is a PR expert," Paulson said. "This is his kind of a pre-emptive strike."
On November 9, 2000, the murder trial of former Jefferson County jail guard Timothy Barnes ended in a hung jury. Barnes was accused in the stomping death of prisoner Adrian Reynolds. After nearly two weeks of testimony, the jury deadlocked following a vote of eleven to one to convict on a lesser charge of assault.
Prosecutors say that on January 6, 1998, Barnes killed Reynolds by stomping on his head during a midnight struggle in the basement of Louisville's Jefferson County jail. Although five other guards were involved in the altercation, only Barnes was charged in Reynolds' death. He was also fired shortly after the incident.
At trial, jurors heard from more than 40 witnesses, including 9 guards and 14 former prisoners. In their testimony, prisoners described Barnes as stomping, bouncing, or standing on Reynolds' head.
Edgar Lamont Woods, a prisoner in the cell next to Reynolds' the night of the altercation, testified that he saw Barnes holding onto a cell bar and standing on Reynolds' head or neck with both feet. Woods said that Reynolds "wasn't fighting back whatsoever."
Guy Edge, who was in the jail that night, told jurors that he heard Reynolds screaming during the struggle with guards, "They're going to kill me. I don't want to die," just minutes before his death. Edge said that Barnes grabbed a cell door, raised his foot 4 or 5 inches off the floor and came down "very hard" on Reynolds' head three times while other guards were trying to hold him down.
Another prisoner, Ricky Spalding, testified that he saw Barnes step on Reynolds' head "hard." He said Barnes' foot came down "a little fast." But Spalding wasn't sure whether it was a stomp. "It's hard to say," Spalding said. "I can't say how hard it hit him."
Kenneth Bunton, a trustee who witnessed the attack from the end of the hall, described how another guard, Jeffrey McClellan, hit Reynolds in the forehead with his palm and how Reynolds' head then hit the wall. McClellan said he pushed Reynolds' head back after he bit him, but not hard. McCellan was not charged.
Two other prisoners, Tracy Price and Kerry Porter, also told jurors what they saw. Price said Barnes' foot was moving on Reynolds' head "like putting out a cigarette." Porter testified that Barnes was swaying on Reynolds' head "like he was on a skateboard."
Dr. Mary Case, a. professor of pathology at St. Louis University and the chief medical examiner in St. Louis County, testified as the prosecution's medical expert. She said Reynolds suffered a severe head injury that would have caused him to lose consciousness immediately. Dr. Case also told jurors that Reynolds would have died soon after suffering the injury. In her opinion, the injury resulted in tears deep within Reynolds' brain, caused by a rapid acceleration and deceleration of his head.
Prosecutor Joe Gutmann asked Case whether Reynolds could have suffered such an injury if Barnes had stomped on his head while Reynolds was lying on the floor with his head slightly elevated. "That is consistent with the injury, yes," she said. Case said she reached this conclusion after reviewing autopsy results, microscopic slides, medical records and court documents, but admitted she never saw Reynolds' body.
In his first taped statement to police, which was admitted at trial, Barnes never mentioned using his foot on Reynolds' head during the struggle. However, after hearing that several prisoners were "pointing the finger" at him in news reports, Barnes called police and gave a second statement. This time Barnes claimed he slowly put his foot on Reynolds' jaw to restrain him, but used just enough pressure to keep Reynolds from raising his head. He said that he had failed to mention using his foot in the first statement because he didn't think it was a "big issue." He claimed that he was simply trying to keep Barnes from biting the other guards involved.
Lt. Jay Pierce, who was a sergeant in the homicide unit when Reynolds died, testified that none of the guards involved mentioned that Barnes had put his foot on Reynolds head when he initially interviewed them. Similarly, Lt Kenny Allen, who investigated Reynolds' death for the DOC's internal affairs unit, said that none of the guards mentioned it in the reports they were required to prepare.
Despite the seemingly overwhelming evidence of guilt, the jury was unable to return a verdict. Eleven jurors had wanted to convict Barnes of second degree assault, but one had wanted to acquit him altogether. As of May 8, 2001, the prosecution had been unable to reach a plea agreement with Barnes and was planning to retry the case at a later date.
Earlier this year, the Century Regional Detention Center, a part of Los Angeles County's massive jail system, killed Henry A. Torres, Jr., through medical neglect. His death comes despite four court orders directing that he receive treatment.
Torres was detained pending trial on three heroin-related charges. Following his arrest on November 8, 2000, Torres complained about something being stuck in his throat. On November 9, and again on December 12, 22, and 26, Superior Court Judge Michael Cowell issued orders for Torres to receive medical care at the jail. Two orders explicitly directed that Torres' throat be thoroughly examined. Following Torres' death, Cowell said he repeatedly issued the orders because it appeared that Torres was not receiving treatment. The judge declined to comment further.
Despite Cowell's court orders, Torres lost consciousness in his cell shortly after 2:00 P.M. on New Year's Day, 2001, and later died at a hospital. Preliminary test results of an autopsy conducted January 5 found what appeared to be a piece of hypodermic syringe in Torres' right lung. He had apparently swallowed the needle accidentally before coming to jail, which caused his lung to fill with blood and other fluids.
Torres' family is considering a wrongful death lawsuit against the jail. "I don't understand how those court orders were ignored so many times," said Lori Torres, who married Torres several months before his death. "It is very hard for me right now," she said. "They took away a special part of my life."
"This is something that should not have happened," said Ray R. Benavides, Torres' grandfather. "If we don't put a stop to this kind of thing, it's going to continue. More people are going to die."
Torres' defense attorney, Stephanie Lofton, was similarly outraged. "Being a heroin addict shouldn't be a death sentence," she said. "I've never seen court orders ignored like this before. The whole thing is so egregious." Based on interviews with Torres' cellmate, Lofton contends that it took 10 to 15 minutes for guards to reach her client. By that time, she says, it was too late to save him. Of course, as Lofton points out, responding sooner wouldn't have been necessary had the jail followed the court orders.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is investigating Torres' death. Capt. Frank Merriman, head of the sheriff's Homicide Bureau, which investigates all prisoner deaths, cautioned that it was too soon to reach any conclusions. He claims that Torres saw a doctor at least once while in custody. "There were court orders at some point," Merriman said. "I know of one visit, because the investigator told me about it. We will be looking at the medical records to substantiate what happened."
Lofton disputed whether Torres was actually seen by a doctor. She said he had received cough syrup at one point, but there was no indication that the judge's orders, including the orders directing a detailed examination of Torres' throat, were actually followed.
Generally, court orders for medical treatment of prisoners are dispatched or faxed to the Sheriff's Department by bailiffs. But in this case, Lofton said the Sheriff's Department failed to notify Judge Cowell of any medical appointments even though the orders required guards to do so.
Torres' death comes amid an ongoing review of medical care at the county jail's eight facilities by the U.S. Department of Justice. In addition to the federal review, Merrick Bobb, Special Counsel for the county, also monitors jail conditions for the county Board of Supervisors.
"Our investigation over the last several years demonstrates a chronic and difficult problem," Bobb said. "Nor are we alone in sounding the alarm. Concerns have been raised by the county Department of Health Services, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Justice Department, doctors, as well as inmates and their relatives and friends."
The sheriff's Medical Services Bureau treats up to 20,000 prisoners each year. Authorities estimate that about 15 prisoners die of natural or accidental causes in the jail annually. The jail processes about 180,000 prisoners a year.
In December 2000, four women filed suit in federal district court against former sheriff Sid Roberts, DOC Commissioner Jim Weatherington, and other guards at the Gordon County jail. Nicole Hammond, Tamatha Crowder, Jeanie Trotter, and Virginia Darlene Quarles all claim they suffered sexual assaults and other abuses while at the jail between 1996 and 1999.
The women say that guards forced female prisoners to perform acts ranging from striptease shows to having unprotected sex with guards and male prisoners in exchange for "cigarettes, telephone calls, and other favors." They further allege violations of their rights to be free from unreasonable searches and to receive adequate medical care. The women's attorney, Steve Lanier, says that Roberts and Weatherington failed to stop the sexual abuse and harassment once they knew of the problem.
Kenyon Trammel, a guard at the jail, has pleaded guilty to sexual assault after having sex with Hammond while she was in jail. Walter Christian, also a guard, had sex with Trotter in her cell and then threatened her with a gun he had hidden. He later took Trotter to Atlanta for an abortion, which she says she was coerced into getting by other unnamed jail officials. Christian has since pleaded guilty to sexual assault charges.
Crowder claims that she was molested and then attempted suicide to escape the "sexually charged atmosphere of the jail." Quarles claims she was told she could not use the restroom unless she preformed oral sex on an unnamed guard. "They told me to use the floor," she said in an interview. She also claims that jail staff refused to treat an injury to her ear and, instead, called her "a dog."
Steven Leibel, another attorney representing the women, described the conditions at the jail as inhumane. "People have the right to be treated with respect and dignity even while in the jail system," he said at an interview held in Lanier's office shortly after the suit was filed.
Roberts said he acted swiftly and decisively to stop the sexual abuse at the jail. "It has already been handled," he said. Roberts claims he initiated an investigation as soon as possible, and even called in the Georgia Bureau of Investigations to wrap it up. "These guys," [referring to Christian and Trammel] "were jailed, booked and dressed in inmate orange in the same jail. You don't think I handled it seriously? You bet I did."
Roberts did not run for re-election following the investigation. Jerry Davis, who won the race for sheriff, took over just days after the women's suit was filed.
In February, 2000, Miller County Sheriff Tom Russell was thrown out of office after Judge Theodore Scott found that Russell knew about and profited from criminal activities in the jail he was charged with running. The suit, which resulted in Russell's discharge, was filed by Attorney General Jay Nixon following a lengthy investigation into criminal activities at the jail.
The investigation began when former prisoners complained of corruption in the jail. A probe conducted by state investigators and the FBI uncovered everything from sex scandals to drug dealing at the jail. Following the probe, both prisoners and guards were found or pleaded guilty to a variety of criminal charges.
For example, former deputy Larry L. Young was found guilty by a jury of acceding to corruption and failure to execute a warrant in November of 1999. Young apparently contacted Tammy Belk, who was on probation and wanted for a check fraud charge, and demanded sex in exchange for not serving an arrest warrant on her. Fearing she would go to prison, Belk told investigators she had sex with Young six times in 1998. Belk later taped a conversation with Young during which he said he didn't want her to become another "Monica Lewinsky." Investigators also discovered that Belk's warrant had been removed from the computer system.
Trevor Plemmons, another former guard, has pleaded guilty to acceding to corruption for taking payoffs from prisoners. Plemmons admitted he took anywhere from $5 to $10 from each visitor who wanted to pass contraband, such as cigarettes and marijuana, to prisoners. Plemmons also allowed two prisoners, David Birdsong and Keith Pebworth, to leave the jail and go home for the night on November 5, 1998. When they didn't return, arrest warrants were issued. According to investigators Plemmons also had sex with female prisoners on a regular basis, once even in the control tower he was assigned to.
Former guard Eric Taylor also pleaded guilty to acceding to corruption. Apparently he and Birdsong, one of the prisoners allowed to go home for a day, were arranging conjugal visits between prisoners and their wives or girlfriends for a fee. Although they charged as much as $100 dollars a visit, business was good. Investigators were able to obtain statements from prisoners, wives, and girlfriends saying they participated in the conjugal visit racket.
Birdsong has also admitted to his role in the corruption at the jail in which he was apparently a key player. Birdsong, who was incarcerated at the jail for six months did everything from arranging conjugal visits with Taylor to stealing drugs from an evidence locker and even paying guards to let him have sex with female prisoners. After serving his sentence Birdsong, who has an extensive criminal history, was hired on as a guard by Sheriff Russell and continued his criminal activities. He has since pleaded guilty to a variety of criminal charges and agreed to testify against other guards as well as Sheriff Russell. Birdsong's sentencing was postponed until after he testifies against his fellow corruptors.
Two other guards have pleaded not guilty to criminal charges. Peter Armstrong has been charged with acceding to corruption stemming from an allegation that he forced an exotic dancer confined at the jail to strip dance in exchange for medicine, cigarettes, and personal hygiene products. Holley Drake also faces corruption charges for allegedly bringing vodka to prisoners, paying one prisoner to assault another, and allowing visitors to give prisoners cigarettes in the visiting room.
Attorney General Nixon blamed the entire scandal on Sheriff Russell. Nixon said Russell knew about the corrupt activities at the jail and did nothing to stop it. Russell disagreed that he was ultimately responsible. "I think people have to see the totality of the circumstances," he said. "One can't be held accountable for the actions of employees. We're talking about a two-year period, and we're talking about maybe 15 isolated events that took just a few minutes to accomplish. I don't think anyone could be held to that standard." Nixon, who filed a petition to remove Russell from office, said the defense was "ridiculous." Judge Scott agreed and granted Nixon's petition, finding that Russell knew of the problems at the jail but did nothing to intervene.
The DeKalb County Sheriff's Department, just east of downtown Atlanta, has suffered from corruption for years. Four of the last five sheriffs have either been convicted, indicted or investigated on suspicion of misusing their positions for personal financial gain. Each has been accused of exploiting his virtually unbridled control over an immense budget for the largest local jail east of the Mississippi.
The sheriff controls a $51 million budget, three-fourths of which is spent on running a jail with about 3,500 prisoners. The jail contracts with private companies for maintenance, medical and food services, all of which run into the millions each year. A separate police department investigates crimes, while the sheriff, who makes $95,000 a year, runs a 700-employee department that manages the jail, serves warrants and protects the courts.
Although the DeKalb County Commission has authority to control the sheriff's budget, it usually defers to the sheriff and has rarely made changes. "There aren't many areas of government where you see that much autonomy to control that much money vested in a single person," said Robert E. Wilson, a former Dekalb County prosecutor. "It costs a lot to run that jail every year, and it's become a breeding ground for corruption."
One sheriff took kickbacks from a bail bondsman. Another took payments from bonding companies and service providers. The last sheriff, Sidney Dorsey, is being investigated by a grand jury for suspicion of using on-duty deputies to staff his private security firm and for assigning prisoners to work on houses owned by political supporters of his wife, an Atlanta city councilwoman.
Dorsey was elected sheriff in 1996. As sheriff, he allegedly continued the illegal practice of allowing bonding companies to solicit business from an office in the jail, without paying rent. These bonding companies racked up a near half-million dollar debt in uncollected, forfeited bonds. Apparently, the bonding companies never paid the county when prisoners failed to appear in court. Dorsey also hired his daughter as the department's spokeswoman. His personal aides included a former state legislator convicted of graft and a judge who was removed from the bench for incompetence.
In the Summer of 2000, Derwin Brown, a former police captain and self-styled reformer, defeated Dorsey in an election that came on the heels of news reports concerning his misconduct. Following his election, Brown announced that he would audit the sheriff's department and told 38 employees, most of them allies of Dorsey, to start looking for new jobs. One of the 38 was deputy Patrick Cuffy.
On the night of December 15, 2000, just three days before he was scheduled to take office, Brown was shot 11 times in his driveway. The investigation into the murder was proceeding slowly until two men were charged with lying about Cuffy's whereabouts on the night of the shooting. Following the arrests, another gun battle broke out in Cuffy's front yard. At least 59 shots were fired. Jeffery George was killed, and Dania Hewitt, a friend of Cuffy's, was charged with the murder. Cuffy has been charged with removing evidence from the scene. Although police have yet to link the two killings, suspicions run high and officials are clearly working on the assumption that the deaths are related.
A grand jury has been investigating corruption in the sheriff's department, and another is investigating Brown's murder. "I really believe now there's probably a cancer in our county," said District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, "and these two grand juries hopefully will be the surgeons we need to cut it out."
But Brown's widow, Phyllis Brown, questions whether the mastermind behind her husband's killing will ever be caught. She said she is confident that Dorsey was involved. "There's a saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely," she said, "and if you look at the history of sheriffs generally, they have absolute power." Dorsey, however, has denied any involvement in the murder, which remains unsolved. [ PLN will report future developments as they occur.]
The stories above are typical of the types of abuse and corruption occurring in local jails across this nation. In fact, PLN has been reporting similar events for nearly 11 years and anyone who has spent time in a county jail knows how bad conditions can be. But despite the obviousness of the problem, the mainstream media has yet to cover the topic as a systemic breakdown. Instead, problems at county lock-ups are viewed as "local" and are left to city papers or television stations to report, if reported at all. No one discusses the fact that these types of incidents are wide spread, pervasive, and national in scope.
Perhaps the national media doesn't report the abuses experienced by jail detainees because those prisoners are typically poor and underprivileged. Perhaps these "second class" citizens are viewed as less deserving of common human dignity. One can certainly draw that conclusion from the lack of meaningful discussion concerning the topic.
Of course, prisoners also bear some of the responsibility for the conditions they must endure while incarcerated in local jails. If the very prisoners who are being oppressed and abused don't speak out for themselves, then why should others be concerned?
Social problems like race or class oppression are only recognized and corrected when enough people rally to end it. Now that Americans are being incarcerated at a staggering rate, maybe there are enough citizens affected by barbaric jail conditions to force meaningful debate and reform. However, it remains to be seen how many more will die before changes are made.
Sources: Albuquerque Journal ,Los Angles Times ,Rome News-Tribune ,The Courier-Jour
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