[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

Photographs by Felipe Buitrago

Failed Experiment?: Martin Rodriguez says he was beaten by officers at the San Jose Main Jail. His story comes as the county Department of Correction has been rocked by scandal after scandal; some say the unusual organization of the DOC is a recipe for disaster.

Downed by Law

Suspicious deaths and claims of brutality against inmates have rocked local jails. Is the county's unusual corrections system a failure?

By Vrinda Normand

TWO DAYS after he says officers beat him in the San Jose Main Jail, Martin Rodriguez made his first appearance in court. His wife, Irene Hinojosa, and his mother, Rivera Alonso, saw him limp into the courtroom that day in July last year. His back and neck were so stiff he could barely turn to see his family.

Their worry escalated when Rodriguez called them from jail. He told them about the beating, about the excruciating headaches and pain in his back and neck; how his feet would go numb and his hands had swollen up like little frogs.

When Rodriguez got transferred to the Elmwood jail in Milpitas, he called Hinojosa nearly every day. She took it on herself to do more than just commiserate—she dialed the number of the infirmary and bugged every person she could reach, demanding that her husband get medical attention. Her inability to speak English wouldn't stop her from making a bigger fuss as the summer dragged on.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez wasn't keeping his mouth shut, and medical records obtained from the county jail document many of his complaints. On July 13, a health-care staff member noted the same pains Rodriguez would tell his wife about, but did not prescribe him Tylenol until five days later when he insisted, "I cannot wait because I might die of pain. I was beaten severely by the police. Be humanitarian. Please help."

During that same visit, the staff member wrote, "See to beating by police during arrest." Four days later, Rodriguez returned to the infirmary, saying he was still in "constant pain" and what pills he had were "not strong enough." A consultation was arranged for July 27, and finally on July 30, more than two weeks after his alleged beating, Rodriguez saw an orthopedic doctor.

The doctor noted, from Rodriguez's account, that he was "restrained in a markedly flexed position for several minutes, causing cervical [neck] and thoracic [upper back] pain." Rodriguez was diagnosed with an upper back sprain and prescribed Motrin (for pain and swelling) and Flexeril (a muscle relaxant). He would take these medications for more than two months while he remained in custody.

But his back pain lingered, and the inmate submitted more requests for medical attention. He finally had X-rays taken in October. They revealed a slightly reversed cervical curve, or straightened neck, which, according to Rodriguez's current chiropractor, is usually a sign that the neck has undergone trauma.

Crisis in Corrections

Because he survived the physical abuse he says he sustained in jail, Rodriguez may be able to shed some light on an institution that has reported seven inmate deaths within a recent six-month period.

From October 2004 to April 2005, there have been at least three fatalities that have raised questions about the county jail system. The most recent incident took place on March 28, when a Spanish-speaking man named Carlos Garcia died after correctional officers restrained him. The 42-year-old man had just been in an auto accident and treated for related injuries when he became ill in the booking area. Official sources say Garcia had been combative, but one witness told the Mercury News that guards dog-piled the weakened inmate.

A similar scenario occurred last year. Scott Marino died in early October when his family disconnected his life support. The 33-year-old man had been comatose for six weeks after Santa Clara County Jail guards "subdued" him for being unruly. Marino's family filed a wrongful death claim with the county, contending that excessive force had been used.

Perhaps Marino and Garcia were victims of "Sudden In-Custody Death Syndrome," the phenomenon coined in a 1996 study of the Santa Clara County Jails (Prison Legal News translated the term to "Sudden Torture and Fatal Beating Syndrome"). The Board of Supervisors commissioned this ground-breaking study after Joseph Leitner suffered brain damage in 1995 when jail guards restrained him by wrapping his head in a blanket and leaving him unattended.

The mentally ill man suffocated and never regained consciousness. His family kept him on life support for the past 10 years in a Los Gatos Hospital and finally pulled the plug in January.

Natural deaths may also arouse suspicion. On Jan. 21, Raina Benavidez died from an acute abdominal infection, which, critics argue, might have been prevented with better medical attention. A few weeks prior to her passing, Benavidez filed a grievance form saying she had been denied a doctor and might die without seeing one.

The 49-year-old woman's death spurred a recent $1.75-million settlement with two health-care professionals who had been fired from the jail in 2003 after complaining of poor medical practices. The whistleblower claim alleged that nurses weren't properly supervised, inmates were denied timely examinations and medical records were in disarray.

The DOC has recently faced another lawsuit, filed by the Silicon Valley Public Interest Law Firm, for misusing the Inmate Welfare Fund, or money that was supposed to go to special programs for inmates, most of which were eliminated or drastically cut in 2003.

All of this points to a trend, says Charles Carbone, a prisoner-rights attorney with California Prison Focus.

"You're creating an organizational culture that is hostile to your inmate population," he explains. Inmate services, medical treatment and use of force may indirectly affect one another, Carbone says, when they contribute to a negative environment.

"Two deaths in any calendar year for a county jail is a significant number," the attorney says. "Three or more deaths per year that can be attributed to use of force or excessive force show a pattern that should be a cause for alarm." In Santa Clara County, there have been three in just over six months.

The Night in Question: Rodriguez describes the brutal treatment he claims to have received at the hands of guards, while his wife, Irene Hinojosa, watches. Hinojosa lobbied hard for her husband to receive medical treatment while he was in jail. Department of Correction officials deny Rodriguez was treated improperly.

An Inmate's Tale

Rodriguez has been telling his own story for almost a year now, starting almost immediately after that brutal night. This is how the 38-year-old father of six recounts the incident as he sits with his wife at small Mexican community center:

On July 11 of last year, Rodriguez was arrested for being under the influence of methamphetamine. He insists he was only drunk (his misdemeanor charges are still pending almost a year later). A San Jose police officer brought him to the Main Jail in the early hours of the morning. Booking records confirm that he was processed around 4am with the arresting officer present. The interviewer cleared

Rodriguez with no visible signs of injury or illness.

He was then shuffled to the photo booth, where, he says, things started to get weird. He began to comb his wavy black hair with his hands, but the heavily muscled guard behind the camera wasn't amused and barked at him to stay still. The man then stood up, Rodriguez says, walked toward him and began yelling in English.

Rodriguez couldn't understand the words but cowered at their force, shouting, "Wait, wait," because he thought the guard was going to strike him. Instead, the guard told him, "Get out." He was called back a few minutes later to sign for his belongings. Two police officers (including the arresting officer) and another uniformed official gathered nearby.

Rodriguez says he had been carrying $1,925 from two car sales he had made that weekend, but the amount had been logged in as $19.25. When he attempted to correct the sum, the official grabbed the pen and taunted Rodriguez, challenging him to take it back, breathing angrily into his face. He then yelled, "Break it! Break it!" The inmate froze, believing the others had just been ordered to break him.

He says the two police officers then twisted his arms behind his back, folding his hands so tightly that they went numb. Then the guard, who Rodriguez says was receiving orders from the official, took the inmate's right hand and made him hit his own face with it repeatedly. Rodriguez says he closed his eyes and tried not to cry out, but that the stress was too much, and he soiled his pants.

The guards cursed at Rodriguez in disgust, he says, one of them pulling him up from the chair and kneeing him in the stomach several times, lifting him off the ground with the power of the blows and forcing the breath from his lungs.

Rodriguez says the guard led him, hunched over in pain, to the back corner of the booking area behind a large pillar, the officers kicking his shins as he stumbled along.

They chained Rodriguez to a chair, binding him at his waist. What he claims followed next would cause lasting internal damage without leaving the usual external signs of abuse: the guard grabbed Rodriguez's head and pulled it forward, causing the chains to dig into his stomach as his torso collapsed over his thighs. Rodriguez says the guard strained his neck in this position for several minutes and then pushed his head back in by hammering it with his hand and twisting it.

As Rodriguez was choking and gasping for air, he says he felt like his neck was being turned like a screw. When it was over, the officers left him chained to the same chair, festering in his own excrement for at least five hours. In the late morning, Rodriguez says he asked a guard to let him use the bathroom; the jail employee conceded but did not remove his handcuffs. So, Rodriguez says, he feebly attempted to clean himself from the front.

He and his wife chuckle at this part as they wipe tears from the corners of their eyes. Rodriguez tries to find humor in small details like this, because every time he recounts the horrific experience, he says, he feels as if he is being violated again.

Wife on a Mission

Hinojosa has been Rodriguez's strongest support, fighting for him while he was in custody and standing by him despite the rejections, deaf ears and helpless sympathy they have encountered.

That summer in 2004, she set out to get some answers. Hinojosa says she visited the Mexican Consulate seven times. Officials there initially told her they would try to help but eventually admitted there was nothing they could do because they were guests in this country.

So she went directly to the agencies she believed to be responsible for her husband's mistreatment. In July, she filed a complaint with the San Jose Independent Police Auditor. A Spanish-speaking representative called her the next month to say that someone had supposedly viewed a tape of the incident and determined that San Jose police officers were not involved. She advised Hinojosa to contact the Santa Clara County Department of Correction.

Rodriguez's wife then submitted a complaint to DOC internal affairs and, a week later, received a similar rejection. In a letter dated Aug. 31, Capt. Sandra Padget wrote, "The Department of Correction has concluded its inquiry. ... After a careful investigation of the complaint, this case has been completed with a finding of CLOSED." Padget quoted a penal code section that prohibits her from giving any more details.

When contacted for this story, San Jose Police Department spokesman Nick Muyo said he could not comment because Rodriguez's criminal charges are still pending. Linda Deacon from the County Counsel's office also declined to comment, saying in an email that the DOC could not legally respond to any inquiry about a former inmate.

Deputy District Attorney Karen Sinunu said complaints against correction officers are "not uncommon."

"We look at these cases very carefully," she says, although she warns that inmates will often describe "fantastic things" and not have any injuries. Sinunu, who hopes to succeed DA George Kennedy, and will likely need law enforcement support to do so, points out that a correctional officer may actually be more injured than the complainant.

Chief of Correction Ed Flores explained in a recent press tour of the Main Jail facility that security cameras exist for the safety of staff and inmates. The DOC looks into all inmate claims of staff abuse, he said, and sometimes the camera footage doesn't match the inmate's story.

Can the Jails Police Themselves?

According to the DOC and the Sheriff's Jail Administration, the two agencies that respond to in-custody complaints, approximately 29 "use of force" investigations were conducted in the first three months of this year in Santa Clara County; 63 such investigations took place in 2004 and 35 in 2003.

Out of the 27 cases looked into by the DOC in 2004, only two were found in the inmate's favor. Capt. Kevin Jensen of the Sheriff's Jail Administration didn't specify the outcome of the 36 cases his agency investigated last year but says most of them never made it past the preliminary stage.

Questions remain as to how thoroughly inmate complaints are investigated. Although Jensen says he consults many sources and doesn't just take the officer's word, Carbone of California Prison Focus says correctional facilities are "notoriously bad at policing themselves."

The county has provided only foggy excuses as to why the clearest piece of evidence in Rodriguez's case—the security camera footage of the booking area where the inmate says he was beaten—could not be examined for this story. County Counsel Ann Ravel initially agreed to provide a copy of the tape if provided with a signed release from Rodriguez.

After obtaining the tape, however, counsel representative Nancy Clarke said she could not release a copy because other inmates were pictured. Clarke also claimed "not much" is visible on the tape, which shows a 15-minute clip without a time code, supposedly the only time Rodriguez appeared in booking.

Ravel later used the tape to dismiss Rodriguez's allegations. She told Caroline Judy, chief of staff for Supervisor Jim Beall, that she had seen the tape and concluded that nothing had happened.

"The question is: Was excessive force used or not?" Judy wrote in an email to Metro. "It seems clear—the answer is no."

Rodriguez has run into walls with most official sources, but he recently found an exception in Richard Hobbs, the new director of the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission. Before Hobbs took over this role in January, Hinojosa says the agency, which advises the Board of Supervisors and offers dispute-resolution services, offered her no help when she called about her husband's situation. In February, the couple got a different response from Hobbs after their case was brought to his attention. The new director met with Rodriguez and listened to his whole story. Afterward, Hobbs looked Rodriguez in the eye and said, "I don't represent the agencies that did this to you, but if I did, and if your allegations are true, I would be apologizing to you right now."

Hobbs says his organization has no authority to place blame on anyone, but he can try to offer some appeasement; he is currently working to get Rodriguez health insurance so he can afford more extensive medical care.

Hobbs' background has likely given him a better understanding of Rodriguez's case than most. In 2000, he directed a county-sponsored project that researched the needs of local immigrant communities. The study included a section on immigrant inmates in the county jails, 44 of whom were interviewed in their native languages.

The results revealed, in Hobbs' words, some of the "harshest comments" about the DOC. The majority of interviewees spoke negatively about how correction officers treated them. The following comments are direct quotes from participants in the study:

"Mexicans are yelled at, and they [the guards] lose their temper very quickly."

"There is a lot of racism in the jail. They call us 'Fucking Mexicans.'"

"We are constantly harassed and treated poorly. I know of an inmate who was beaten. Seven Latino inmates are on a hunger strike. Medical attention is delayed."

"We're treated like animals instead of human beings."

"Most immigrants are treated more poorly than native-born. Some inmates are beaten."

Although the DOC played a helpful role in conducting this study, Hobbs says he never received an official response to the results. Now, five years later, he hopes to do a follow-up study to see if conditions have changed.

His office will conduct a hearing on the criminal justice system this fall, and he welcomes Rodriguez to come for public comment.

"I don't want to hide anything," he says. "I think it's important that people talk about these things. The purpose is to improve service within the Department of Correction."

'The Last Thing They Want to Do Is Look At Their Jails'

How common is the use of excessive force by correction officers? Is Rodriguez's story true, and if so, is it a wild-card incident or part of an abusive trend? The full story may not be found in numbers or media accounts, because many of these incidents are believed to go unreported. Hobbs says immigrants, who make up one-quarter of the inmate population, are far less likely to speak out for fear of retribution. In his 2000 study, some inmates reported that grievance forms were not available in their native language.

"These incidents are by nature underreported," says Gary Wood, a local activist and former Grand Jury member. "The thing is, you're in their custody. You're complaining to the same people that beat you up."

The DOC, Wood contends, is an unaccountable system. Fifteen years ago, the sheriff ran the jail and, as an elected official, answered to voters if conditions deteriorated. County supervisors created the DOC to save money, after an acrimonious struggle over mushrooming budgets with then-sheriff Robert Winter. The DOC has managed to save money, but unlike a sheriff-administered county jail system, it is accountable only to the Board of Supervisors. And barely so, says Wood—"the last thing they want to do," he says, "is look at their jails."

Judy from Supervisor Beall's office says the chief of correction reports directly to the board and is evaluated monthly. Problems with a DOC-related claim, she adds, can also be brought to the board's attention.

'We Can't Pretend That It Doesn't Happen': San Jose activist Quetza has been a supporter of Rodriguez and his wife. 'I give him a lot of credit for coming forward' she says.

A 'Fight Club'

One source familiar with the workings of the county jail system says there are further problems with the organization of the DOC. Sheriff-run jails allow officers to rotate through assignments: courts, jails, patrol, etc. But DOC guards get no relief from the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the jail, and are stuck in what is considered a dead-end job with no obvious promotion path.

The end result is so bad, the source calls it a "Fight Club."

"You've got a tremendously tense environment," he says. "It's a dangerous environment."

There is an incredibly high burn-out rate among correctional officers, he says.

"These guys all want to be cops, but instead they're just baby sitters for criminals."

Other sources close to inmates, however, concur that Rodriguez's story is not out of the ordinary. One employee of Friends Outside, a partially independent organization that offers inmate advocacy services, agreed to be interviewed only if his name not be used. He says he has to maintain a working relationship with the DOC because most of his time is spent inside the correctional facilities.

"The majority of inmates that I represent usually have a story of an officer being abusive, verbally or physically," he says. "I believe that most of these incidents go unreported for fear of retaliation."

The advocate says he hears many complaints of inadequate medical care. Inmates tell him they've waited a couple of weeks for treatment. He also sees marks on their wrists days after being handcuffed too tightly.

One time, he says he witnessed the abuse while he was waiting in an interview room that had a window facing the inmate dormitory. The officer in the controlled area did not know he was watching.

The officer shoved the inmate out of the dormitory and started "roughing him up" in the hallway, "pushing and grabbing him, kicking his legs apart, slamming him against the wall." The advocate says he saw the inmate's head bounced off the wall.

After a few minutes, he says, the guard at the door signaled to the offending officer that he was being watched. The scuffle stopped abruptly, and the advocate was told to leave the jail for the day.

A former Main Jail nurse says she had a similar experience when she worked at the correction facility from April to June last year. Nancy Rutherford says she heard from fellow nurses that the booking process was particularly brutal, and one day she saw something that might have resulted from that treatment.

An inmate was brought to her floor with a large black eye. When she inquired about it, he told her in a Southern accent, "Ma'am, they hit me while I was in handcuffs" (referring to the guards). Rutherford immediately went to get him some ice and told a co-worker that the man had been "assaulted."

The next day, Rutherford's commander reprimanded her for that comment, telling her she had to watch what she said because "the news media are around."

Rutherford says she quit her job shortly after because she didn't agree with the way inmates were treated.

Pursuing the Case

Rodriguez and Hinojosa have found a sanctuary in the small Mexican community center run by Quetzaoceloaciua (Quetza for short), a San Jose activist who has adopted an Aztec name. Quetza first heard about Hinojosa's struggle for her husband in September through a member of the community. The activist called her to offer assistance and has since acted as the couple's primary resource.

In the beginning, Quetza worked with Hinojosa to publicize her complaint. In September, she drafted an English letter to the Board of Supervisors requesting medical treatment for Rodriguez and a thorough investigation into his beating. She received a response saying the letter had been forwarded to the Human Relations Commission.

Hinojosa went with Rodriguez's mother, Rivera Alonso, to a BOS meeting in October, and attempted to speak about her husband during public comment. She says she was cut off and told that was not the place to air a grievance. She and her husband then filed a claim with the county in January, but they were refused in February.

Quetza has encouraged Rodriguez and his wife through all the pitfalls, even now as they are searching for an attorney to help them pursue their case. "I give him a lot of credit for coming forward," the activist says. "Officers treat immigrants the worst because they figure they're not going to complain or follow through."

"I believe it has to be exposed," Quetza continues. "Because this kind of treatment is normal for prison guards. We can't pretend that it doesn't happen."

Rodriguez's former cell mate at Elmwood, Julio Ramirez, expressed the same view in a January letter. "Don't forget to go to the doctor so they can take care of the lump that you showed me on your head," he writes in Spanish. "And save all the hospital papers to prove that they hit you. They are dogs."

With limited English and money enough to eek out a living in East San Jose, Rodriguez's only weapons are his perseverance and conviction that what happened to him inside the Main Jail was wrong.

"The people that did this to me are out there like nothing happened," he says in Spanish. "They have to do something, more than just apologize."

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

From the June 15-21, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.