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Suspicious Deaths And Beatings Allegations Still Plague Santa Clara County, California Jail

by Marvin Mentor

Seven prisoner deaths and numerous reported police beatings between October 2004 and April 2005 at the Santa Clara County (SCC), California jail have local civil rights watchers calling for a grand jury investigation. Similar problems occurred at SCC in 1995 when they were studied by the County Board of Supervisors under the name Sudden In-Custody Death Syndrome," more candidly retitled Sudden Torture and Fatal Beating Syndrome" when reported in PLN (July 1996, p.16).

On March 28, 2005, Carlos Garcia died after guards from the SCC Department of Corrections (DOC) restrained him when he became ill in the booking area. He had been injured in an auto accident, but official reports rated him combative. One witness reported that the guards dog-piled" Garcia.
In October, 2004, 33-year old Scott Marino died when his family finally disconnected life support. Scott had been comatose for six weeks after SCC guards subdued" him for being unruly. Marino's family has filed a wrongful death suit alleging excessive force.

These deaths are mindful of the incident that led to the 1996 Board of Supervisors study, wherein prisoner Joseph Leitner suffered brain damage when guards restrained him by wrapping his head in a blanket and then abandoned him. He never regained consciousness, but was kept on life support for ten years in a Los Gatos hospital, succumbing in January, 2005 when his family agreed to pull the plug.

So-called natural deaths" have raised suspicion, too. For weeks 49 year-old Raina Bermudez had complained of abdominal pains which went untreated, in spite of her having filed a grievance form. She died of an acute abdominal infection. Her family recently settled out of court for $1.75 million after showcasing endemic poor medical practices at SCC.

On July 11, 2004, Martin Rodriguez was booked into SCC for being under the influence of methamphetamine. He claims he was just drunk; his misdemeanor charges remain pending. Booked into SCC at 4 a.m., Rodriguez was scared when the guards yelled at him for combing his hair with his hands while his picture was being taken. He was then asked to sign for his belongings, which included $1,925.00 in cash he had collected from two car sales that weekend. When he saw it listed as $19.25 he objected and the guards taunted him to take their pen and correct it. Then, two guards twisted his arms behind his back, took Rodriguez' hand and hit him repeatedly in the face with it.

Rodriguez was so upset he soiled his pants, resulting in the guards pulling him up from the chair and kneeing him in the stomach so hard as to lift him off the ground. Then they took him to the corner of the booking room and chained him to a chair. In the chair, he had his head pushed down into his belly chains for several minutes, after which the guard pushed his head back in by hammering and twisting it. Writhing in neck pain, Rodriguez was left chained in the chair for five hours. He suffers permanent neck pains from this assault.

Rodriguez' complaints and grievances, as well as those of his wife Hinojosa, fell on deaf ears of everyone they complained to. The Mexican Consulate could not help because the Rodriguezes were only guests in the United States. The San Jose Independent Police Auditor, after viewing video tapes, declined to help because no City Police were involved. DOC internal affairs representative Sandra Padget wrote that the DOC concluded, after a careful investigation," that the case was closed, citing a penal code section that prohibited her from giving any details. San Jose Police spokesman Nick Muyo declined comment because the matter was still under investigation; Linda Deacon from the County Counsel's office, Deputy District Attorney Karen Sinunu and Chief of Corrections Ed Flores likewise declined.

With all this denial, it is not surprising that SCC has a poor record of policing itself. Thirty-five investigations of excessive use-of-force complaints were reported in 2003, 63 in 2004 and 29 in the first three months of 2005. Of 27 looked into by DOC in 2004, only two were found in the prisoner's favor. As to Rodriguez' case, the county has provided only foggy excuses" to investigative journalists from the Metro News as to why the video tape footage could not be seen, unless Rodriguez signed a release first. When a copy was later located, County Counsel Representative Nancy Clarke refused to release it because it pictured other prisoners as well. Calling the tape of poor quality, Clarke nonetheless relied upon it to dismiss Rodriguez' allegations, concluding that nothing had happened.

Rodriguez found some sympathy in Richard Hobbs, the county Human Relations Commission director. Hobbs had experience directing a 2000 county project researching needs of local immigrant communities. He found that Mexicans were harshly treated and that racism was rampant in the SCC jail. His study was never responded to and it appears that conditions have not changed.

Gary Wood, a former Grand Jury member, pointed out the dilemma, You're complaining to the same people that beat you up." Calling DOC an unaccountable system, Woods said that the Board of Supervisors doesn't really watch closely over it. DOC morale is so bad that most guards look at their jobs as dead end, promoting a Fight Club" mentality and environment at the jail.

Other witnesses to brutality include members of Friends Outside, a volunteer organization providing books and other services to SCC prisoners. One unnamed witness observed a guard bouncing a prisoner's head against the wall, until another guard signaled that they were being seen, whereupon the volunteer was asked to go home for the day. Nancy Rutherford, a former SCC nurse, quit her job after frequently treating serious injuries sustained by prisoners in the booking room.

Rodriguez is now looking for an attorney to take his case on contingency. Notwithstanding his permanent disabilities from the beating injuries, his claim should at least be worth the $1,925 the booking room guards stole from him.

Source: Metro News.

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