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Sacramento Jail Rampant with Excessive Force and Brutality

Imagine six million candles of light and the noise level of a jet plane taking off inside an average 6'x10' jail cell. That's what Courtney Countee, Jessie Kerwin, Daniel Lucas, Jason Morrison, Cladius Jefferson and Michael Toro endured at the hands of the Sacramento County jail's Custody Emergency Response Team (CERT). Three of the men were seriously injured. All six were subsequently confined to prostraint chairs for at least an hour past the approved limit.

An investigation conducted by the Sacramento County District Attorney's office identified multiple administrative and legal infractions during the CERT's extraction of the prisoners from their cells. The resulting report also issued a scathing commentary on how the Sheriff's office deliberately hindered the investigation. Yet prosecutors ultimately concluded that no prosecutable offenses had been committed.

A 26-page report issued by the D.A.'s office detailed the reasons not to prosecute despite the investigators' detailed account of inappropriate behavior by jail guards and supervisors.

On December 1, 2005, at about 6:00 p.m., it was discovered that five prisoners had plugged their sinks and toilets and flooded a unit on the 8th floor of the Sacramento County Main Jail. Just after 7:30 p.m. the water supply to their cells was cut off.

Between 8:00 and 8:30 p.m., probationary supervisor Sgt. Donald Black assembled a CERT crew to remove the offending prisoners from their cells. Black also decided to remove another prisoner, Claudius Jefferson, because he was yelling encouragement to the others. Jefferson was housed on a separate tier and wasn't involved in the flooding.

Black chose to deploy "flash-bang" stun grenades to accomplish the cell extractions. That's when people started getting hurt.

Daniel Lucas suffered incendiary burns when the flash-bang detonated between his inner thighs as he lay prone on his cell floor. Claudius Jefferson was burned from elbow-to-wrist and on his torso when the grenade tossed into his cell blew up next to him. He also was lying on the floor.

According to the D.A.'s report, a flash-bang grenade has the potential to injure when "deployed within two and one-half feet of a person." For this reason, procedure dictates that guards do a "quick peek" to determine the location of a prisoner to ensure that injury does not occur.

Evidence revealed that Sgt. Black failed to follow the "quick peek" policy. Jessie Kerwin was ordered to the floor; four seconds later he was flash-banged. Jason Morrison was given a six-second grace period, while Daniel Lucas got ten seconds.

The report observed that Sgt. Black never afforded the men an opportunity to exit their cells voluntarily -- a clear policy violation.

After the cell extraction, all six prisoners were strapped to prostraint chairs for over two hours. Jail rules state that "no inmate is to be restrained in the chair for more than one hour" unless approved by the Watch Commander, and based on "articulable facts."

Investigators said the written statements that were used to justify the extended restraint of the prisoners had a "cookie-cutter" appearance, and lacked "the required articulation of facts to support" the protracted use of the prostraint chairs.

All of these injuries and infractions resulted from the poor judgment of Sgt. Black over an event that did not even warrant the notification of a jail supervisor, because cell flooding was "not an uncommon occurrence in the jail" and was not considered "any real exigency," according to the report.

Just conducting the investigation and getting cooperation from the Sheriff's office was a source of concern for the District Attorney's office.

"Ordinarily we do not comment on the cooperation of other agencies," the report stated. "In this instance, however ... the subsequent conduct and responsiveness of the Sheriff's Department ... significantly impacted our ability to discover and evaluate the facts of this case."

The report called Sgt. Black's poor procedure "troubling," and said the CERT guards "exercised poor judgment." It cited numerous broken laws and regulations. Yet the report then concluded that all the evidence, taken separately or together, was not sufficient to justify prosecution.

Meanwhile, three Sacramento County prisoners suffered burns, broken teeth and other injuries at the hands of guards for a situation that was never an emergency. Michael Toros and two other prisoners who were injured by the flash-bang grenades have since filed claims against the county.

The use of flash-bang grenades at the jail was severely restricted in June 2006. "The December incident made us take a really critical look at how these things are used and how we want them to be used," stated Sheriff's Lt. Scott Jones. "The policy was not as well-defined as we wanted it to be. We had all assumed common sense would prevail."

Apparently that assumption was incorrect.

A History of Abuse

The D.A.'s office wasn't the only one to criticize the Sheriff's Department. In a November 22, 2005 hearing related to the jail, county supervisors heard complaints from a number of citizens, including Rene Lopez, who had served with the California Highway Patrol for twenty years. "I have no ax to grind," said Lopez. "I've heard stories all my life about what goes on in the stairwells, about what goes on in the elevators.... The people being injured there aren't the big, powerful people on drugs. It's the people who are there for simple infractions. It's been happening for years and no one paid attention."

The truth of Lopez's words is undeniable, as there is a lengthy history of prisoners having been abused, injured, or even killed at the jail.

Carmelo Marrero died in the Main Jail on April 17, 1995 after being restrained by guards. Coroner Phil Ehlert said Marrero's death was due, in part, to "a lack of oxygen caused by a highly agitated state exacerbated by the imposed restraint." A class action lawsuit filed on Marrero's behalf claimed his death was the direct result of the extended period of time he spent strapped in a restraining chair. The claim was settled for $750,000.

Jail prisoner Alex Trujillo, 21, was jailed in January 2000 on a public drunkenness charge. After refusing to sit down Trujillo was manhandled by deputies, who then took him into a hallway that wasn't monitored by surveillance cameras. According to Trujillo, "I remember hitting the floor face first, hitting my nose, laying in blood, having them punch and kick me." He was later acquitted on a charge of resisting a peace officer, and received a $91,000 settlement following an excessive force lawsuit.

On December 25, 2002, it was reported that two transsexual prisoners had lodged separate complaints stating they had been raped in the jail after guards purposely housed them in general population.

Attorney Dean Robert Johansson said, "What is important is that neither know(s) each other or of each other's attacks. There appears to be a pattern of gross injustice here. At worst you have guards setting up rapes of transgenders. At best you have flagrant disregard for the rights of fellow human beings."

Both prisoners said they told the guards that they were transsexual, which would have required them to be housed separately. Jailers claimed they were never informed.

One of the victims eventually had to be hospitalized at U.C. Davis Medical Center with a swollen face and "bite marks on her body." A subsequent lawsuit stated that "She was placed in the cell with a male inmate much taller, heavier and stronger than herself." Medical tests confirmed that the victim had been raped.

In spite of this evidence, the guards involved said the victim was making up the story. "Who do you report a crime to when the law officer is the one who is allowing it to happen?" asked one of the rape victims.

On February 27, 2006, U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell, Jr. ruled, in a case filed by transgender prisoner Richardo Medina-Tejada, that then-Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas "had 'fair warning' that the jail's classification and treatment of plaintiff may be unconstitutional."

Tejada was described in court documents as a "pre-operative male to female transgender individual ... [who] began taking hormone pills in her native Mexico." Tejada came into the U.S. illegally to escape the harassment, humiliation and torment she experienced in her own country. Her illegal status resulted in her incarceration in the Sacramento Main Jail as a pre-trial detainee.

Tejada was classified as a T-Sep (Totally Separated) prisoner and was forced to endure unreasonable punishment and harassment. Tejada was forced to go to "laundry calls" "naked to the waist" while other prisoners made "catcalls" and lewd remarks. She was only provided one hour of recreation per day, in total isolation, and allowed to shower less frequently than regular prisoners because of her T-Sep status. On at least one occasion Tejada was subjected to a major use of force due to a misunderstanding stemming from a language barrier.

The conditions described in Tejada's lawsuit were found to be unconstitutional in a remarkably similar, unpublished ruling in Tates v. Blanas, USDC, ED DA, Case No. S-00-2539 (2003 WL 23864868). In Tates, the court held that "T-Sep classification was intended for 'inmates who violate rules'", and not for pre-trial detainees or arbitrary placement of transgender prisoners.

In his 24-page memorandum order, Judge Damrell concluded that "Plaintiff [Tejada] has proffered sufficient evidence ..." to justify the denial of summary judgment to Sheriff Blanas. The case was later settled by the county in June 2006, in conjunction with settlements in two other lawsuits involving transgendered prisoners. See: Medina-Tejada v. Sacramento County, USDC ED CA, Case No. Civ.S-04-138FDC/DAD (2006 WL 463158).

No End to the Brutality ... or Lawsuits

On January 25, 2006, Branden Johnson filed a lawsuit against the Sacramento County jail. Johnson had been arrested on October 30, 2005 for suspicion of drunk driving. He left the jail 14 hours later bloody and beaten, with a broken nose and fractured shoulder and ribs.

In an interview with reporters Johnson stated, "I started to yell. I said 'I was brought up right. My dad's a retired state peace officer.' Man, then they really started beating me."

At the time of his interview Johnson had several large lumps on his head, contusions to his wrists and ankles, and a swollen hand and foot. According to Johnson, jailers repeatedly slammed him on the floor while his hands were cuffed and his feet shackled. Bound hand and foot, jailers eventually left him cuffed to a floor grating that doubled as a toilet.

Dwayne Johnson, a retired prison guard, went to the jail the day after his son's release. "I told them, 'I'm here to find out why you people beat the hell out of my son.' I was told my son was abusive. They had this young man handcuffed and shackled, who did nothing but address them as sir."

"This is a case I'd love to take to a jury," said Johnson's attorney, Kathryn Druliner. "My client was soft-spoken, compliant and he was not drunk. Thats why this is so egregious."

Johnson's suit also stated that he was subjected to racial slurs and that $137.00 was taken from him at booking but not returned.

Druliner has been locked in a battle with the Sheriff's office in her effort to retrieve video footage of the beating Johnson received at the jail.

During a news conference, Undersheriff John McGuinness claimed to have video tapes to prove "There were no strikes, no blows, no kicks, no slams, no aggressive conduct toward [Johnson] at all."

But when Druliner subpoenaed the tapes the Sheriff's office cited computer hard-drive problems as a reason why they couldn't comply with the request. "...they think they can just destroy tapes that are bad for them," said Druliner. "In November, McGuiness said he had the full tape. Well, I want it." Johnson's lawsuit is still pending. See: Johnson v. Sacramento County Sheriff's Dept., USDC, ED CA, Case No. 2:06-cv-00169-DFL-GGH.

Another violent incident at the jail was caught on surveillance tapes produced by the Sheriff's office in a different lawsuit. Jafar Afshar, a 37-year-old veteran, was arrested for public intoxication on June 7, 2003. He was slammed to the floor by Deputy Brett Spaid during a search, causing a severe head injury that required sutures.

Afshar said he heard somebody say, "Where is your God now?" before he was suddenly taken down. He was released the next day with no criminal charges, and filed a federal lawsuit on June 7, 2004.

Dean Johansson, Afshar's attorney, produced two tapes for the county supervisors. The first tape, initially provided by the Sheriff's Department, contained no images of brutality. But a more determined search by Johansson produced additional footage that showed Afshar being slammed to the floor.

"This is the most deliberate attempt I've seen to conceal evidence and obscure the truth in my years as an attorney," said Gary Gorski, who represents Afshar in his still-pending lawsuit. See: Afshar v. Sacramento City, USDC ED CA, Case No. 2:04-cv-01088-LKK-JFM.

Retired Sacramento Co. Sheriff's Lt. Timothy Twomey, an expert witness in Afshar's case and two other lawsuits alleging abuse at the jail, agreed. "I suspect possible tampering with evidence because in the two most critical scenes -- the nurse intake without sound and the moment of takedown -- the video is altered."

On March 3, 2006, Gorski filed a class action lawsuit against the Sacramento County jail based on yet another reported assault by jail deputies.

Robert Hunter, a 52-year-old veterinarian, came forward after he saw the media coverage of brutality in the jail. Hunter was arrested on September 17, 2005 on charges of suspicion of drunken driving. When the toilet in his cell began to overflow he attempted to signal the guards. For his efforts, deputies slammed him to the floor and fractured his elbow.

A short time later Hunter spoke out when guards brutalized another prisoner. His captors replied, "shut up weasel, and keep facing the wall." Hunter said, "I just sat there with a lump in my stomach." He related that he spent over 18 hours in the jail too afraid to ask for a working telephone so he could tell his family where he was.

When Afshar's case was publicized, Hunter said, "I couldn't just sit back." He could not believe the Sheriff's assertion that brutality in the jail was rare. "I know what goes on," said Hunter.

He filed his formal complaint on March 8, 2006. Less than two weeks later, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence K. Karlton partially denied Sheriff Blanas' motion for summary judgment in Afshar's lawsuit.

In a 13-page order, Judge Karlton commented that the "dispute [of] the existence of an informal policy condoning the use of excessive force on jail inmates requires a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial."

The Court ruled that Blanas was entitled to summary judgment in his official capacity but not in his personal capacity, because a fact finder could conclude "that defendant Blanas participated in condoning a policy of excessive force...," in which case "...qualified immunity would not apply." See: Hunter v. County of Sacramento, USDC ED CA, Case No. 2:06-cv-00457-GEB-EFB.

Videotapes were also produced in the cases of Mihaita Constantin and Michael P. Hay, two more prisoners at the Sacramento County jail who suffered beat-downs by guards. Constantin, 33, made the mistake of standing instead of sitting while he was being held in a drunk tank at the jail on July 14, 2003. He was "taken down" by five deputies who broke his arm and nose, then shackled him to a floor grate.

Hay, 21, whose arm was broken by jailers on December 22, 2000, reportedly was "not following directions quickly enough" according to the deposition of Deputy Santos Ramos. A jail nurse in the intake area had told Hay, "They like to hurt people around here." He was released with no charges filed against him; in 2002 Hay settled a lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department for $147,500. See: Hay v. County of Sacramento, USDC ED CA, Case No. 2:01-cv-00732-FCD-JFM.

Constantin also filed suit, but died in a car crash that was ruled a suicide and the case was dismissed in March 2006.

No internal investigations were conducted in the Afshar or Constantin cases; an investigation into the incident involving Hay resulted in deputies being reprimanded, but no other action was taken. None of the deputies involved were fired. Expert witness Lt. Twomey stated that the cases involving Afshar, Constantin and Hay made him believe "that excessive force is sanctioned and deemed by unwritten policy to be acceptable and a pattern and practice with the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department."

Indeed, from 1998 to 2003, Sacramento County paid out $1.2 million in settlements involving 23 excessive-force claims at the Main Jail. At least 20 more cases were pending as of November 2005. The largest payout, $600,000, went to Charles Sortomme, who was severely kicked by deputies at the jail during a strip search. Two guards were fired in connection with that incident.

Audit, Grand Jury Report Reveal Problems

To add insult to injury, prisoners who were assaulted by jail guards couldn't count on receiving adequate medical treatment. An annual report issued by the Sacramento County Grand Jury on June 20, 2006 found numerous problems with health care at the jail. The report noted that there was chronic understaffing of nurses, the facility's health care system was unaccredited, and the jail's pharmacy system put prisoners at risk of receiving incorrect medications.

One example of inadequate care involved prisoner Anthony Jose Gonzales, who was held at the Main Jail in 2005. Gonzales was repeatedly refused treatment for a splinter in his finger. An infection developed and he ultimately had to obtain a court order to receive medical care. By then it was too late and his finger had to be amputated.

In July 2006, nurses at the jail declared a "crisis" in the medical unit due to rampant understaffing. Thirty percent of nursing positions were vacant at the time.

Additionally, an audit of the Sacramento County jail by outside consultants, released in February 2006, found major deficiencies in jail staffing and security. The report cited a lack of accountability, insufficient documentation of use-of-force incidents, understaffing and excessive use of overtime. A follow-up audit, presented to the Board of Supervisors in June 2006, made over 30 recommendations to fix deficiencies at the county's jails. The two audit reports cost the county more than $300,000.

As a result of the audits there may be changes in staffing at the jail, where many rookie deputies start their careers. The minimum age for deputies is 18. "Most of the officers in the jail are very young," stated Sacramento County Supervisor Illa Collin. "That in itself presents some real problems ... I guess, from my perspective, I would like to see officers with a lot more training and experience."

In addition to young jailers with little experience, some deputies are sent to work at the jail as a form of punishment. In 2003, Deputy Kevin Sowles was assigned to the jail after a road-rage incident; he was fired the following year after assaulting and choking a prisoner.

"I hope we will learn whether Sacramento County jail is being operated in accordance with best practices for correctional facilities -- as well as any recommended improvements to the jail facility or its operation," said County Supervisor Roberta MacGlashen.

Undersheriff McGuinness called the initial audit report "Honest. It's a great foundation on which to build significant success in the future."

But Sacramento NAACP President Betty Williams blasted the audit as a waste of taxpayer's time and money, saying, "the auditors are being paid an outrageous amount of money for things the NAACP already knows."

Others also expressed impatience. A newly-formed citizen's group called the Jail Reform Coalition (JRC) has called for more aggressive action against the jail. Many feel that even the NAACP is being too passive.

"It's time to have some in-your-face reaction time to get something done," said Laura Byrd, a local activist. "Accountability is what we want," added Rev. Ashiya Odeye. "We want to see legitimate change."

The Sacramento Civil Liberties Union, La Raza and the Chicano Consortium have aligned themselves with the JRC.

Efren M. Gutierrez, a member of the Sheriff's Advisory Board, resigned in January 2006 due to the Board's impotence. Now a member of the JRC, Gutierrez said, "I felt in my own conscience that I could not face my own community when my people were getting beat up (in the jail). I owe the public the truth; I don't owe the sheriff anything."

Sheriff Blanas, not surprisingly, declined to comment. The county's Board of Supervisors did have something to say, though -- in June 2006 they approved the use of a civilian inspector general to oversee the Sheriff's Department.

Blanas, who did not run for re-election, was replaced last year by John McGuinness, his understudy.

Sources: Preliminary Audit by Brann & Associates and PSG, Inc., Sacramento Bee Daily Newspaper; Sacramento TV Channel 10 News, District Attorney Use of Force -- Investigation and Findings.

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Related legal cases

Medina-Tejada v. Sacramento County

Tates v. Blanas

Hay v. County of Sacramento