Since no one else wants to address the elephant in the room here on the latest attack at the jails, I will.
The jails were supposed to get better; today, according to all that was allegedly done, we should be looking at a smoother running, better managed, safer system that can be better trusted to have an above standard set of policies and an accountability system that doesn’t just punish, but intervenes before it reaches that point through training and mentoring. But we don’t. We still have none of that despite all the money and time spent convincing you that we do.
The jails were in collapse in August 2015 when the first of three deaths occurred, Michael Tyree. By the time Walter Roches died from sepsis and the sheriff tried to keep quiet the fact he suffered significant injuries in a poorly handled cell extraction that likely contributed to his death, people were starting to demand action. By the end of October, the Blue Ribbon Commission concept was solidifying and being moved forward with the selection of Judge LaDoris Cordell to lead it. By February, with meetings now in full swing, we found out that Vladimir Matyssik, a man suffering from Alzheimer’s, was negligently let out of the jail by himself back in November and died hours later trying to cross a busy highway.
August. September. November.
Today we go back and look at the jails and they are still, despite contracts involving potentially a million dollars or more, a mismanaged and dangerous problem where people are getting hurt. We’ve seen a number of deputies suffer significant injuries from assaults by inmates, and countless inmate fights that endanger the population and the deputies. There’s been several high profile escapes and numerous near-miss escapes you were never notified of that were mostly disrupted by sheer luck rather than any functioning system to prevent them.
Let’s talk about staffing, a core issue that affects the ability to function successfully in virtually every area of the jail, and how it plays into this situation. Staffing was noted again and again as a critical status issue. There were not enough people to do the job, to train, to cover shifts, to move people to medical appointments and on and on. The sheriff had cut a jail already at 25% below staffing needs by another 25% as a political move to promote how fiscally responsible she was during the election. Today, staffing is at least as critical as it was the day Micheal Tyree was killed.
Today, because Supervisor Simitian has put pressure on the sheriff to fix staffing needs in the enforcement side as well, Laurie Smith has brilliantly decided the best recruiting grounds to improve the staffing for enforcement is her own jails now that the heat of the moment has passed there. As she pulls people from her own jails, there are further numbers retiring or moving on to other jobs at other agencies. It’s not enough she’s depleting personnel further, there is another important impact to this action. Because of the number of new personnel in the jails, there is a now an even bigger need for those with experience and the ability to train people – another critical issue that came up during the BRC. The sheriff perpetrating “brain drain” on her own jails is an incredibly poor decision. Sadly, despite drawing from one to fix the other, the sheriff’s management of both is so poor that courts are still staffed by half with retired Extra Help deputies, and there are still people working one job “on paper” and actually physically assigned elsewhere to hide the shortages. The sheriff’s shell game is still barely sustaining either jails or enforcement.
We should note a significant failure that should be ringing a warning bell for us all. We had plenty of warnings there were problems before Tyree, Roches, and Matyssik, but as a community we chose to ignore it, or worse, stand there and laugh and join in as Laurie Smith and Rich Robinson bashed the messengers. Are we going to be that foolish again?
Last week a man was stabbed 40 times by 2 inmates in an attack that was premeditated and planned in a room full of 40 inmates that were programming (out of cell time) with only a single deputy in the room to respond.
Because there was only one deputy, the ability to end the fight was severely diminished. Other inmates took their time responding to an order to return to their cells, so the deputy could safely approach the fight without having to worry about being attacked by yet another inmate or three himself/herself.
It appears that the contractor that has been hired by the county to create a safer environment within the jails, based on better policy, best practices and national standards has missed the mark on all of these. It has been nearly a full year since the last BRC meeting, and the situation is such now that inmates can easily plan and execute an attempted murder in full site of the minimal staffing compliment that has yet to be addressed.
As I’m to understand it, creating the solid policy critical to a jail community functioning safely has been put aside in favor of “feel good” developments like pizza night and sodas for those who keep their dorms clean and instructing deputies to consider how an inmate feels before taking any action and be in touch with their own inner feelings when they take that action.
I’ll be the first to admit these incentives and concerns can be important elements (at some level) within a successful system; incentives and consideration of others and self though, these are not the root problems that need to be addressed to fix the devastation the sheriff has visited on the jail systems. For that matter, the philosophy being taught as I am told by inside sources, is that cell searches offend inmates and violate their rights (this is a jail, right?) so the contractor has reduced searches and they now require explicit proof of necessity AND permission from a lieutenant before they can be conducted (and yes, I still have the memo). If those cell searches happened the way they should happen (not as a punitive measure, or only when the inmates are dumb enough to wave around contraband, but as a function of a jail with a proper search policy) in all likelihood those shanks would have been found and an attack perhaps prevented or reduced in severity. What if the deputy had been attacked? Who would’ve known to respond if they overwhelmed him/her before they could put out a radio call? What if turned into riot with 40 inmates holding a deputy hostage? It didn’t, but don’t tell me that it couldn’t happen. It happens in poorly run jails often enough to be a legitimate concern.
Because the need for programming time for inmates was a critical need and safety issue in and of itself, Sheriff Laurie Smith, Chief of Corrections Karl Nuesel and this contractor have decided to address it. Good. But rather than noting and addressing the harder to fix, problems (effective policy, staffing and training) that needed to be addressed first to do this right, they to the easy way out and simply doubled the number of inmates allowed to program at one time with no other effective changes, including staffing increases leaving 1 deputy with 40 inmates in a room alone. A recipe for future disasters that no one is discussing.
So essential citizens, you have spent well over a million dollars by now (not to include lawsuits) to simply make the problem in the jails that much worse, but with pretty wallpaper so you don’t feel so bad about the jails.
There are no means to provide safe incentive programs and “feel good” opportunities if the environment isn’t first made safe for everyone. This incident where a single officer was left alone a room with 40 inmates, (and lets face it, simply being nice doesn’t make everyone a better person, criminals can and do take advantage) shows the primary gaps that created the animosity, inappropriate responses, unsafe environments still exist a year later despite movie night, pizza parties and soda rewards.
A year later what has the new CPOA president Amy Le really done to force the issue of safety for everyone like she promised? These are the types of issues she should be screaming from the rooftops about. These are the things that were supposed to be fixed. Instead she has stood virtually silent, in support of the sheriff, as policy continues to collapse, practices continue to fail to meet “best practices” or standards that other jails meet, and a contractor with no apparent background in effective jail structure that I’ve been able to find that, and I quote from several sources, “allows the inmates to run the jails.”
Someone is going to get killed. Again. And again, it will be because the sheriff refuses to implement real solutions to real problems that generally get people killed in jails.
It could be another inmate, like almost happened in this instance. I could be an officer who’s left alone in a room full of 40 inmates who decide not to comply and return to their cells. It could even be a citizen given the increasing number of escape attempts and even more sophisticated inmates being moved to lower-security Elmwood here in the coming days as the sheriff randomly shuts down an area of the Main Jail, allegedly because of community pressures and cost savings. Sound familiar? This is roughly 200 higher security inmates that are being rehoused without considering safety before all else, with the significant potential to increase levels of violence and number of escape attempts at Elmwood.
Do we really need to wait for more people to die to demand the County Board of Supervisors get their act together and deal with a sheriff who doesn’t seem to understand or care that she is responsible for the lives of inmates, deputies, officers and the public that rely on her offices functioning in the manner they should?
Perhaps it’s time for another Blue Ribbon Commission to review what has been done to improve the situation in the jails over the past 1 1/2 years since the sheriff claimed to have started fixing things. It’s time to get a public overall inspection of this contractor that has taken hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars only for us to see a single deputy sitting in a room full of inmates with no backup or safety strategy beyond hoping inmates will follow orders and a can of pepper spray.
Another commission will allow the public to know if the promises the sheriff and the county made are being kept or if this is just another expensive facade built by Cindy Chavez and Dave Cortese “Happy Bills” to shut us all up and protect an incompetent sheriff so she can either get re-elected or hired elsewhere. Let’s try to do it before anyone else dies this time.