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San Bernardino County Jail Named in Federal Lawsuit

On May 7, 2014, six detainees held at the West Valley Detention Center in San Bernardino filed a civil rights complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Their lawsuit alleged that they were repeatedly assaulted with stun guns, had shotguns placed to their heads, were deprived of sleep and even anally sodomized by jail officials as part of routine “searches.”

Named in the suit as defendants were Sheriff John McMahon, Captain Jeff Rose (the commander of the jail) and eight deputies and contract guards. Three of the defendant guards were fired in the wake of a joint state and federal criminal and administrative investigation: Brock Teyechea, Andrew Cruz and Nicholas Oakley.

Rana Anabtawi, a staff attorney at the Prison Law Office, based in Berkeley, said her firm has been investigating complaints involving “dozens” of prisoners who alleged excessive force and substandard medical care at the West Valley facility, which houses some 3,000 prisoners. All six of the plaintiffs who filed suit were confined in the jail’s Unit 11, a segregation wing for those needing protection from the general population. They alleged that they were shocked with stun guns while being served food and while sleeping, and that pepper spray was introduced under their cell doors. Claims of beatings and assault were also raised; the anal sodomy charges stemmed from “searches” when detainees left the jail for court or doctor visits.

The substandard medical care allegations were accompanied by multiple complaints that prisoners were not given grievance forms when they requested them pursuant to Title 15 of the California Code of Regulations.

Sheriff McMahon said he could not respond to specific allegations in the prisoners’ lawsuit, but instead took medical personnel on a tour of the West Valley Detention Center. He defended the adequacy of the jail’s medical treatment, saying prisoners receive “great medical and psychological care.” As to the allegations of abuse and the firing of the three guards, McMahon said the ongoing investigation will determine “whether or not [abuse] was occurring.”

He also defended his agency’s handling of prisoner grievances, stating that when his staff receives a grievance they “investigate to find out if there’s any truth to it,” but that “99 percent of the time, there’s nothing to the complaint.”

Curiously, McMahon defended the jail’s grievance system by noting there had actually been an increase in the number of grievances filed over the last three years. He said electronic kiosks will be installed in every unit, allowing prisoners to file complaints without staff intervention.

The federal lawsuit over abuses at the jail remains pending, but has been stayed due to a criminal investigation and internal affairs investigation launched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Sheriff’s Department in April 2014. The prisoners are represented by attorneys Sharon J. Brunner, Stanley W. Hodge and James S. Terrell. See: Hanson v. McMahon, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 5:14-cv-00911-JGB-DTB.

In February 2015, a federal grand jury convened to review the West Valley Detention Center prisoner abuse case. Witnesses are still being interviewed by both the FBI and the grand jury.

An additional three lawsuits were filed between 2014 and 2015 over abuses at the jail. The now 35 plaintiffs allege that over 30 San Bernardino County defendants either perpetrated or failed to intervene in a “culture of violence” and “pattern of systemic abuse” at the facility.

Both Bernardino County CEO Greg Devereaux and Sheriff McMahon blamed the increase in violence among prisoners and between prisoners and guards on California’s Realignment initiative that took effect in late 2011, which resulted in prisoners being jailed rather than held in state prisons. They did, however, agree to improve the jail’s medical and dental services, expand the network of surveillance cameras throughout the facility, and install electronic kiosks that will allow prisoners to not only file grievances but also request medical care and order commissary items without the involvement of – or interference by – jail staff.


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Related legal case

Hanson v. McMahon