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Widespread Abuses at Santa Clara County Jail; Three Guards Convicted of Murder

by Lonnie Burton

Three guards employed at a jail in Santa Clara County, California, in the Silicon Valley area, were convicted on June 1, 2017 of second-degree murder for the fatal beating of a mentally ill prisoner two years earlier. The charges also resulted in investigations into guards’ conduct as far back as 2013, and publicity surrounding the case spurred former prisoners to come forward with harrowing stories of assaults suffered at the hands of “out-of-control” jail staff.

Guards Jereh Lubrin, 30, Matthew Farris, 28, and Rafael Rodriguez, 28, were convicted of beating prisoner Michael Tyree to death. Tyree, 31, was found naked and lifeless in his jail cell on August 26, 2015; his death was caused by “multiple blunt force injuries,” according to Dr. Joseph O’Hara of the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Office. An autopsy revealed that Tyree was struck in the abdomen and sides of his body so severely, his injuries were “equivalent to being hit by a car or falling off a roof.” He had a damaged liver and ruptured spleen. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.48].

The beating was reportedly in response to a verbal altercation that Tyree had with a nurse earlier that day; he was being held at the jail while awaiting a bed in a residential mental health treatment center.

The three guards also were charged with beating another mentally ill prisoner, Juan Villa, 48, on August 25, 2015. The jury deadlocked on those charges, even though prosecutors presented a text message sent to Farris in which Lubrin corroborated a claim that the guard had rubbed feces in Villa’s face during an earlier incident in July 2015.

Prosecutor Matt Braker presented other texts to the jury, sent almost exclusively by Farris, that referred to prisoners being “twisted up,” “sprayed,” “kicked,” “locked down,” “slapped” and “beaten the (expletive) down.” Braker contended the texts expressed the guards’ enjoyment of the pain and discomfort experienced by prisoners, particularly those who were mentally ill. But two deputies who worked with the defendants and were involved in some of the text exchanges testified for the defense, claiming the sadistic-sounding messages were merely “sarcasm” and “bantering.”

Bail had been set at $1.5 million for Lubrin, Farris and Rodrizuez, who remained on paid administrative leave while awaiting trial. After being convicted they were led from court in handcuffs to await sentencing on September 1, 2017; the charges carry 15 years to life in prison.

Following the verdicts, Sheriff Laurie Smith, who oversees Santa Clara County’s jail system, said she stands by her 1,400 deputies “who perform their admirable duties for residents with integrity and compassion” and “will not be defined by the actions of these three individuals.”

Tyree’s death led to reviews of the Sheriff’s Office, including one by a special civilian-led commission, which in March 2016 recommended 121 improvements at the jail. The county has since implemented some reforms, including installing cameras in most locations at the jail, though not in the unit where a prisoner was beaten to death by another prisoner in May 2017. Officials are still debating whether to appoint an independent inspector general to oversee the facility. In September 2016, the county settled a lawsuit filed by Tyree’s family for $3.6 million – most of which went to his young daughter.

In the five months after Tyree’s death, at least eight other guards were removed from duty and/or charged with crimes for abusing prisoners. Nearly a dozen more were investigated for exchanging racist text messages.

Guards Phillip Abecendario and Tuan Le are accused of beating 50-year-old prisoner Ruben Garcia so badly that his jaw was permanently disfigured. They were suspended while a criminal investigation continues.

Garcia filed suit in federal court, alleging that on July 24, 2015 the two guards became upset after he loudly complained about missing dinner, then dragged him in shackles by his shirt, banging his head on a table and slamming his face against a wall before “pummeling” him in the ribs. The lawsuit claims the guards then pulled down Garcia’s pants and underwear while they dragged him up a stairwell.

Once placed in a cell, Garcia said he was kneed repeatedly in the back and forced to say he was a “bitch.” The next day one of the guards apologized to Garcia, but added, “Welcome to my dorm.”

In May 2016, Abecendario and Le were each charged with one count of assault by an officer; each faces three years in prison if convicted. At least 24 prisoners witnessed all or parts of the beating.

Garcia said he only came forward with his story after he saw coverage of Tyree’s death in the news media. Tyree’s case also prompted others to come forward.

Sheriff Smith said she was investigating several unnamed guards for excessive force, but that she was prohibited by privacy laws from revealing any details. Two other jail guards were arrested for illegally accessing a criminal database for personal use, and for workers’ compensation fraud.

The president of the correctional officers union, Lance Scimeca, was placed on leave in connection with a probe into the exchange of racist text messages, and later replaced.

Under the spotlight of intense media scrutiny, Santa Clara County officials announced numerous reforms in late 2015, intended to improve jail conditions and provide a safer environment for prisoners and staff. One plan was to equip every jailer with a body camera, though that proposal did not sit well with the guards’ union.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to have a body-worn camera on” every guard, union president Scimera said at the time.

Amy Le, the union’s new president, issued a statement the day after the verdict in the Tyree prosecution, stressing the need to reduce the practice of warehousing mentally ill people in jails.

“We are sad with the jury’s verdict, but we respect it,” she said. “We must continue to work together for long-term solutions for the treatment of the mentally ill, including the creation of specialized facilities.”

Other reforms instituted by the county included adding 40 hours of “crisis intervention team” training for new recruits, designed to help them better deal with mentally ill prisoners. An anonymous hotline for staff, prisoners and members of the public to report incidents of abuse, misuse of force and poor conditions at the jail was established. Further, county officials asked the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections for assistance in improving jail conditions.

Finally, the county has appropriated as much as an extra $74 million to increase psychiatric care, add more staff and improve staff training. The county’s chief operating officer, Gary Graves, conceded that the changes were prompted by Tyree’s death and the investigations that followed. His death “certainly prompted us to move ahead with some of these fixes faster,” Graves said. “We felt it was important to address these gaps sooner.”

Other abusive incidents at the jail have contributed to the need for systemic reforms.

Former prisoner Julian Vasquez-Bernabe, 26, held a news conference in June 2016 to announce his lawsuit against two Santa Clara County jail guards accused of assaulting him while he was incarcerated the previous fall. Vasquez accused deputies Emmanuel Thomas and Eddie Barrera of beating him until blood flowed “down into his eyes and temporarily blinded him.” The suit remains pending. See: Vasquez-Bernabe v. County of Santa Clara, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 5:16-cv-03218-EJD.

Additionally, two female Santa Clara County guards were placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into the beating of a prisoner at the women’s jail in Elmwood. The guards were not identified in news reports.

Another former Santa Clara guard was charged in August 2016 with assaulting prisoner Danny Jackson three years earlier. Jackson reportedly suffered broken facial bones and cuts inflicted by guard Timmy Tri, 35, who kicked him in the head and face two or three times. Tri was charged with assault and battery and assault with deadly force.

Most recently, jail guard Leonel Groba was arrested on February 17, 2017 and charged with assault for striking a prisoner. He pleaded not guilty and was released on bail.

“There’s a new climate,” said Steven Clark, a former prosecutor and legal analyst. “The public’s attention to police violence, particularly at the jail, had a lot to do with this as well. Because of the Tyree case, people are more receptive to believing inmate witnesses.”

“We recognize there is a lot of concern about the jails,” stated Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, adding that Tyree’s death had prompted the county to “change its approach.”

Those changes came too late for prisoners like Tyree and Garcia, however. When a former prisoner’s mother testified during a hearing before Santa Clara County commissioners that her son had to shave his head just so jailers could not drag him around by his hair, community activist Shaunn Cartwright told officials the problem with excessive force was not limited to two or three guards, and absent establishment of some sort of permanent oversight body, the abuses will likely continue.

“I filed a complaint and nothing was done,” testified William Mendoza, the father of a mentally ill prisoner who was beaten by guards so badly that he had to be rushed to the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Mendoza made a final plea to the commissioners:

“Please, please, keep everybody safe.” 



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