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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Gray's Anatomy of a Jail: Santa Clara County correctional officer Joe Gray, who has been working in local jails for 17 years, says most people have no conception of what his job is really like, or how much of a problem overcrowding has become.

A Tale of Two Jails

Our cover story on the county Department of Correction touched a nerve in this community, and the response revealed two very different—but critically related—views of the jail system

By Vrinda Normand

When I met Martin Rodriguez six months ago, I'll admit I was skeptical. Anybody can say they got beat up in jail, and what evidence would they have to prove it?

But I decided not to let this doubt close my mind completely to Rodriguez's story. I listened to his detailed account of how correctional officers at the San Jose Main Jail pounded his head and wrenched his neck. How they dragged him to the back of the booking area, behind a large pillar that likely obstructed the view of security cameras.

I heard Rodriguez describe this incident several times, always remaining consistent and often becoming upset while telling the story. His persistence got to me. It had been more than half a year since he was released and he was still speaking out. When I got his medical records, which tracked the same complaints during the three months he was in custody, my suspicion grew.

After five months of research and discovering a recent pattern of inmate deaths in the county jails, my editor and I became confident that something happened to Rodriguez. Without video footage of the incident (which was denied to us by County Counsel), we couldn't be sure it happened just as the inmate described. But we felt someone had to start asking hard questions of the Department of Correction, an institution supported by local taxpayers.

Those questions seemed to strike a nerve in the community. When the "Jail Break" article was published last month, Metro was hit by a wave of letters and phone calls, from both sides of this issue. Some callers and writers said they were disgusted by the systemic breakdown they saw happening in the DOC, and a few claimed to have been treated badly—even sustaining documented injuries—themselves. Officers for the DOC, on the other hand, claimed no one was taking their side of the story seriously, though they seemed to feel the story did capture the "pressure-cooker" atmosphere they worked in. I took all of the feedback as an opportunity to dig a little deeper.

What I found, after speaking with several correctional officers and aggrieved former inmates, is that problems in the county jails seem to be rooted in the troubled system that was set up after control of the jail was taken away from the sheriff's office as a cost-saving measure. Inmates complain that officers are heartless bullies. Officers respond that inmates are menacing troublemakers. These accusations are superficial and often totally off-base. But when the right conditions come together to brew tension, conflict can erupt from both sides.

Shades of Gray

Correctional officer Joe Gray has been working in the county jails for 17 years. He has a large figure, a soothing voice and gentle brown eyes. Sitting across the table at a local coffee shop, he holds his 1-year-old son, Joseph. The boy rests his sleepy face on his dad's round belly.

Gray wrote to Metro complaining that my article made all correctional officers (COs) seem like monsters. Clearly, he isn't one. The 39-year-old doesn't want to make any waves on the job, especially any that would jeopardize his time with his wife and three kids.

He works at the Elmwood jail in Milpitas, the county's minimum-security facility, so his job is, perhaps, less high-pressure than it might be at the maximum-security Main Jail in San Jose.

But Gray has had his share of trying encounters. He says he's been bitten by a man with AIDS and spit on by a woman throwing a fit. He's had his nose and fingers broken and a tooth knocked out.

But instead of becoming burnt out over the years, Gray says he's become more tolerant and understanding. He believes the majority of inmates are good people who made bad decisions. And sometimes, just being in jail can make a person snap—he remembers a man who tried to escape the week he was to be released. It doesn't help, he says, that inmates are being crammed into the jails like sardines. Gray says the jails now hold double what they did two years ago. Dorms that used to hold 48 inmates now hold 96. Triple bunks make that possible. The lowest security dorm at Elmwood, called "the camp," houses more than 800 inmates—with only eight to 10 officers patrolling. Gray says the DOC has also cut back on positions. An employee list obtained from County Counsel includes 572 correctional officers. Gray believes this number should be closer to 800.

From Lean to Anorexic

In the Main Jail, officer Marcin Gruszecki alone mans a direct supervision module that houses 64 inmates (with one to two in each small cell). The population in some modules, Gruszecki says, has jumped to 96, while still maintaining only a single supervising officer.

Gruszecki says understaffing has compromised the Central Training Unit that provides ongoing officer guidance.

"People get lax," he says. "I would say some officers are undertrained. It's an accident waiting to happen."

He adds that sometimes inmates can't be let out of their cells for recreation or special programs because the floors lack full staffing. "There is a difference between a lean organization and an anorexic organization," he says. "Sometimes we are so busy I am glad to go home."

Everett Fitzgerald, president of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers Association, says understaffing puts both officers at inmates at risk, making it more likely that the two sides will abuse each other.

A Department of Correction spokesperson did not respond to questions about these accusations of overcrowding and understaffing.

Although the DOC was created, in part, to save taxpayer money, Fitzgerald argues that COs do the same work as sheriff's deputies (who used to run the jail), so they should be getting paid the same. COs are paid on average 15 percent less than sheriff's deputies, although this year they received a 10 percent pay increase (the first substantial jump in about nine years). That brings the gap closer to 12 percent.

Many of the officers have been stuck in entry-level positions for more than 10 years with little hope for promotion, Fitzgerald says. The law enforcement ladder at the DOC includes 23 sergeants, 14 lieutenants, three captains and one chief. That doesn't leave a whole lot of room for 572 line officers to climb. For instance, in 17 years at the DOC, Gray has performed well on the sergeant's test five times with no results. Gruszecki, a line officer for 12 years, has tried to move up and laterally (to more specialized departments) at least 25 times.

"I have no future in this organization," Gruszecki says. Any attempt now, the 50-year-old officer feels, would seem futile.

Gray insists that he knew what he was getting into when he became a CO. And he likes his job well enough to have stayed there for 17 years. Gruszecki enjoys the company of the other officers, many of whom are also immigrants like himself.

"They do a job that not everyone can do," Gruszecki says. "I admire that after so many years they can still hold it together on a professional level."

After listening to these officers, I got a clear picture of how tough their occupation is. I began to wonder about the other 570 COs.

How many of them deal with the pressure like Gray and Gruszecki? How many of them keep it together on Friday and Saturday nights at the Main Jail when the heaviest crowd comes in? Or in booking, which Gruszecki says is "too hands-on" for his preference?

More Tales From Jail

On a Saturday night in April, Kathy Thomas (not her real name) was brought to the Main Jail on a public drunkenness charge that has since been dropped. The 39-year-old health-care worker says she was annoyed at her arrest, didn't pass the attitude test with COs, and allegedly faced serious consequences when she refused to spit out her gum.

Thomas could not speak on the record directly because she is pursuing a legal case against the DOC with a private attorney, but she left the following story, including photos and related documents, with the San Jose Barrio Defense Committee.

That story starts with silent glances and rolling eyes when Thomas wouldn't spit out her gum during the interview with the nurse in booking. Then Thomas says she was dragged across the room behind a counter. A female CO allegedly roughed up her hand during fingerprinting. Thomas protested that the woman was painfully twisting her wrist and digging her nails into her arm. When the CO continued, the inmate pulled her hand away.

Thomas claims that the next thing she knew, she was face down on the ground. Within seconds a swarm of blue uniforms was on top of her, and she felt as if their knees were crushing her back. They allegedly twisted her arms and legs at unnatural angles and pulled her head up by her hair. Thomas says they squished the urine out of her bladder, and when she could catch her breath, she began to cry, "Stop it. You're hurting me."

"They weren't subduing me," she revealed. "They were intentionally inflicting pain." Thomas found two witnesses in the intake area, one of whom said she was surprised Thomas could move her head and neck after what they did to her.

The next day Thomas had developed bruises all over her body. Photographs that I examined show a black, pear-size mark on the inside of her upper arm, a collage of blue and red on her hips and buttocks, round blue spots on her neck, which she says are fingerprints, discoloration spread over her shoulder blades, a black eye, a red bulge on her shin and swollen elbows. She also found several knots on the back of her head.

Thomas has been diagnosed with sprains in her upper back, neck, shoulders and arms. An MRI showed a bulging disc and fractured vertebrae in her upper back. She has not been able to return to work for the past three months.

A Question of Degrees?

One of the most challenging aspects of investigating inmate brutality claims is establishing the credibility of someone who has a criminal record. The natural bias of the press—not unlike society's in general—is to discredit an inmate's story because he or she probably did something unlawful to get into jail in the first place.

Ironically, that bias is probably what keeps a lot of scary stories under wraps. San Jose attorney Anthony Boskovich says he gets about five calls a week from inmates complaining of abuse in the Santa Clara County jails. He has to be careful, he says, to weed out litigation-happy inmates who have nothing better to do. But the substantive cases are numerous enough to keep him overwhelmed. Boskovich, who represented the Duran family when their son mysteriously died in the Main Jail in 1998, is one of the few local attorneys who will accept cases against the DOC. Most lawyers, he says, are discouraged by clients who have criminal records and conservative South Bay juries that tend not to decide in the plaintiff's favor or award damages.

The typical complaint he receives, he says, is from an inmate who says or does something, however small, to tick off an officer. And sometimes, he says, that's all it takes to merit a heavy-handed "attitude adjustment."

"The next thing you know, the inmate's on the floor, unconscious," Boskovich says.

The attorney says he has also found that security cameras often don't show everything that goes on. Once when viewing a video from inside the jail, he says he saw masking tape stuck to the floor and believes it was where COs had marked off the cameras' blind spots, which would enable them to move inmates behind the taped lines "to beat the crap out of them."

When official sources reassure me that CO's only use the minimum force necessary to control an inmate, I have to ask myself: how did a 5-foot-3-inch woman end up with at least seven officers on top of her and a black-and-blue body?

And how did Martin Rodriguez end up with back injuries that are causing him pain more than six months after the alleged incident?

Mary Sansen, an attorney that represents COs, says that in her experience, nine times out of 10, inmate allegations are either complete fabrications or misunderstandings.

"The problem with 'excessive force,'" she says, "is that the average person may not understand what is permissible under department policy and the law."

COs use force according to how much an inmate resists, she says. "The vast majority of correctional officers are well trained enough to know not to step over the line," Sansen says.

Charles Carbone, an attorney with California Prison Focus, agrees that one person's interpretation of excessive force may differ from another. For example, the first-time inmate may feel very violated at the roughness of an officer who is accustomed to handling hundreds of difficult people every weekend.

At the same time, he says of COs, morale is going to be lower in a burnout job that is somewhat thankless. "If officers aren't treated well, it's no surprise that they may act out their aggression and frustration on inmates," he says.

If the organizational culture of the DOC treats both inmates and officers poorly, Carbone says, "that only creates greater animosity and tension between those two groups. It's more likely that things will get out of hand."

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From the July 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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