In Just 6 Months…

Oversight is important in jails and prisons. This is beyond an idea, it’s established fact. Failure to ensure strict structure ensures deterioration of whatever structure does exist. Ironic as the sheriff told our community during the election, we didn’t support her because she was so strict. Structure at Santa Clara has had it’s failures, but the past months the deterioration appears to be very serious.

The Sheriff felt she was qualified to be the sole decision maker in the Santa Clara County Jails and fought to get the jails moved from Department of Correction fully into her domain so she no longer had to work with or answer to anyone.

Under the DoC, they managed the day to day operations of the jail, while the sheriff was responsible for oversight, which placed a number of enforcement sergeants in the jails to ensure best practices and to follow through and provide guidance on any necessary investigations and ensure reports were appropriately taken and filed.

One of the decisions made by the Sheriff some time ago was to remove all enforcement personnel from the jails; ultimately 16 enforcement sergeants were removed and replaced with 12 corrections sergeants, a process which began in late January/early February of this year.

It’s my understanding that the current in custody death investigation is casting light on glaring problems within the oversight practices currently in place in the jails — significant changes in how things are done in just 6 months may have allowed the incident to happen. Sources have been telling me they believe the current circumstances exist because of a deliberate indifference on the Sheriff’s part to ensure officers are properly trained to handle and work with mentally ill inmates. I’ve been told that once this story breaks in full some believe it is likely a grand jury will be convened to investigate policies and practices in this specific area, at least. I’ve learned what happened may involve behavior some believe has become a common practice in the past months and finally went “over board”. Incidents mentioned range from taunting to even more severe actions that have garnered no investigation under the current oversight practices. What is very bothersome are internal changes that have taken place since the Sheriff has taken all oversight from enforcement, thereby failing to have sergeants present during certain actions involving entering an inmates cell to custody sergeants and above not being properly trained on how to conduct an investigation into a crime or other inappropriate actions. One source states that they felt investigations have been overlooked because the lack of training in the investigative process to the new corrections sergeants.

What training was given to custody personnel prior to replacing enforcement personnel to ensure they were prepared to do the job required, and that they knew and understood what the job entailed as far as processes and oversight? From my sources and going back over my notes during the change, there seemed to be an explicit assumption that because custody was in the jails seeing what enforcement did, they already knew and could step into the jobs and perform them without any further training. A dangerous assumption in the best of circumstances. The sheriff is notorious for cutting and training, even refusing training as a punishment, so it’s no surprise here that her management plan failed to address training personnel prior to the transfer. After all, she was doing this, at least in part according to some, to get back at the DSA and the quicker it happened, the better as far as she was concerned.

This begs the question — how many problems have been completely overlooked because no one knew what to look for and because no one died to create the incentive to review what was happening? This isn’t the only problem that’s been happening from what I’ve been told by various people, just the most visible. I’ve had sources tell me recently about a corrections lieutenant who was allowed to quietly retire to avoid an investigation into potential significant misconduct on the job. I don’t have a lot of detail about that situation, but I can’t help but wonder is this all a sign of how serious the deterioration is in the administrative oversight in our jails.

Another bad decision involving developing custody trainning came to my attention late last week that sheriff had allowed a high ranking someone, make the decision to allow John “Boxer” Mendoza to lecture, as well as sell and sign books, at the corrections academy. Mendoza is a former Nuestra Familia shot caller that was held in this very jail, and was notoriously involved in questionable relationships with several of personnel just a handful of years ago.

It seems to me this is the last person you want teaching your new cadets, surely there are plenty of other non-controversially involved people to have the expertise to give this type of lecture. Mendoza is far from the only person who has left a gang and can speak from experience. Then to allow him to be treated like a celebrity, selling and signing books to cadets and veteran personnel? This isn’t just bad decision making, it’s lack of thinking, it’s lack of foresight, it’s lack of integrity. How many times did Mendoza speak at the academy, and is it possible that a message came across as an endorsement to violence?

There was a lot of back and forth for several years regarding pulling the enforcement personnel from the jails. Many thought it a bad idea, but it finally happened. The problem was, it wasn’t a new idea and from all I can see, there appeared to be no functional plan from the administration to ensure the transition. Ultimately, while we’ve had our eyes elsewhere, arguing about corrections personnel being fully trained for street assignments before being sent out, or sufficient training to deal with increasingly violent offenders with the change in state law, we missed the sheriff’s failing in an even bigger way — training the corrections personnel to correctly conduct oversight practices to ensure everyone’s safety in the jails in the wake of her removing enforcement personnel — a critical and central issue in the day to day jail operations that should have been in all our sights. But ultimately there are so many problems we’ve been attempting to address from the POV of our deputies and officers who are the boots on the ground trying to do the best they can with little to no real support from their administration, it should be no surprise to any of us that we can’t cover it all in a working environment like this.

When I’ve asked about training in the past I’ve been told by some the philosophy for too long has been “the lawsuit is cheaper than the training.” This goes hand in hand with the failure we’ve seen on the part of the sheriff and her top people to follow up on incidents to see where we can improve responses and outcomes — she doesn’t address problems before they happen, she doesn’t address them after they happen. How long can this cycle compound itself before we start to see regular incidents with serious negative impact?

The price for the failure to accommodate this training gap in the transfer, and the lack of prior concern for a successful transition on the sheriff’s part has proven to finally be too high. Three corrections deputies find themselves possibly facing very serious repercussions and an inmate is dead. Could training and therefore more comprehensive oversight have ensured this never happened?

Or maybe if we didn’t have an absentee sheriff who has for the past 2 years regularly refused to come into the office to do her job, she would have seen this problem before it reached this point.