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Excessive Force, Torture, Disease and Disgust: the State of U.S. Detention Centers

prison-bars

IMAGE SOURCE: salon.com

West Valley Detention Center (WVDC) in Rancho Cucamonga, California is like many other detention centers in the United States with the exception of being one of the largest. It is also one of the worst. Past and present lawsuits against the detention center and the San Bernardino County Sheriffs run the gamut; from illegal strip-searches to excessive force, torture, death and more.

There is currently at least one on-going class-action suit whose filing has prompted the Feds to investigate claims of prisoners being tased on their genitals, deprived of sleep, chicken-winged while handcuffed, having shotguns being held to their heads and being victims of sodomy. One plaintiff claims being tased at least 80-times over five-years by at least a dozen different deputies.

These are not isolated abuses by a select few and instead is a systemic problem.

NBC Los Angeles:

Six inmates who served time in a Southern California jail are seeking $150 million each in a lawsuit, alleging deputies beat and tortured them in a lockup last year, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week.

The plaintiffs allege they were subjected to electric shocks to their genitalia, were deprived of sleep, had shotguns placed to their heads and were sodomized.

The inmates said in court documents that they were handcuffed with their arms behind their backs, causing extraordinary pain while they were jailed at the West Valley Detention Center. ~ Jason Kandel and Gadi SchwartzFederal Lawsuit: San Bernardino County Deputies “Tortured” Inmates, May 10, 2014

Right now neighboring Riverside County Jail is also facing a class-action lawsuit. There are and have been similar claims and cases against other facilities across the nation. There are sure to be more.

The Desert Sun

A ruling this week by U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips expands the lawsuit beyond the seven plaintiffs — all of whom are current or former inmates in the county jails — to a case that could have ramifications for anyone detained in one of the county’s five jails.

“This is now about the whole system. It’s about every prisoner who needs care, and it’s about every aspect of the jail healthcare system,” said Sara Norman, managing attorney for Prison Law Office, the Berkely-based prisoner rights group representing the inmates who sue county in March 2013. ~ Barrett Newkirk, Riverside County Jail Lawsuit Gets Class Action-Status, September 3, 2014

Of course there was no mention of these allegations in the San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury

San Bernardino Sentinel:

(July 2) The 2013-14 San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury, while taking up the subject of conditions inside the detention facilities run by the county sheriff, made no mention of the circumstances or activities relating to the alleged abuse of inmates that led to an FBI investigation of the West Valley Detention Center or the filing of a federal lawsuit alleging abusive and sadistic treatment by jailers there. ~ Venturi, Grand Jury Report Offers No Mention Of Jail Abuse Allegations, July 5, 2014

For the past decade we have witnessed countless high-profile cases of excessive force by law enforcement against U.S. citizens. Watch-organizations like Cop Block and Renegade PoPo have cropped-up to expose and address many of the current injustices including solutions. Filmmaker Dylan Avery is working on his latest project, a documentary called “Black and Blue” that shines a harsh light on the brutality issues that span the country today.

We mostly hear about cases happening on the outside. Cases like Michael Brown, Andy Lopez or Kelly Thomas were all over the news, but the reality is, police brutality has become an epidemic and those who are locked-up  behind bars are not immune.

When Doing Time, Crime Is Crime

There is little differentiation on the inside as to how you are treated as an inmate. I know this first-hand after spending more than two-weeks at WVDC. Inmates who are in for minor crimes like old DUI warrants, traffic violations, and lapsed registrations are treated the same as those who are there for bigger crimes such as armed robbery, burglary, assault, extortion, grand theft and worse.

Unless you earn some sort of favor with a deputy everyone is pretty much treated like scum. From my perspective, it was those that had been there the longest who received any leniency if there was ever any to be had. Some deputies punish everyone in a unit if a single prisoner commits an infraction of the rules or – as I had observed a couple of times, for no reason at all.

The aggression coming from deputies at West Valley was pretty intense while I was there. My diabetic cell-mate was in sick-bay getting her bandage changed. She and the nurse were bantering and the nurse jokingly replied to a comment with, “You better back yourself down”; a nearby deputy was instantly at her side, taser at the ready. The nurse had to assure the deputy that they were only goofing-off. Another inmate in my unit was 3-months pregnant when she was tased twice while in custody and at a local hospital.

Each deputy is different, but with their 12-on-12-off shifts, a sadistic and quick-tempered deputy ready to goad, humiliate or harm can be an ongoing nightmare for those singled out. Not every deputy is a monster, but no one is safe from one who is.

Inside West Valley

However brief my time at WVDC, while there I experienced and witnessed many injustices, rotted food and unhealthy living quarters. I was forced to endure no less than three separate strip searches, two of which were illegal. In fact, West Valley has been sued for these unwarranted strip searches in the recent past and the plaintiffs won their case.

Class Action Settlement:

This lawsuit involved the former policy and/or practice of the San Bernardino County Jail of strip searching the following categories of inmates without reasonable suspicion that they possessed weapons, drugs or contraband: 1) arrestees who were transferred from a local jail to a main jail before they were arraigned, 2) federal inmates who were transferred to the San Bernardino County Jail, 3) inmates transferred from another jail to San Bernardino County to be arraigned on charges there, and 4) inmates who had appeared in court and became entitled to release after their appearance. The Class Period for the above categories is May 3, 2003 through December 11, 2006. In addition, it involves inmates of the San Bernardino County Jail who do not fit into the above categories but were strip searched in a group rather than individually. The Class Period for this category is May 3, 2003 through March 7, 2007. ~ Craft v. San Bernardino County, et al., San Bernardino County Jail Class Action Settlement Website – FAIR USE

On multiple occasions I also witnessed questionable treatment and medical negligence of fellow inmates. I myself was subjected to rough handling by a deputy that resulted in injury.

The deputy handling transport from Joshua Tree to West Valley had an overly aggressive attitude the minute he approached me tightly wrapping the chains around my waist. I asked politely if he would not chain me too tightly (because he had). I briefly explained I had kidney cancer and Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) which should have been documented in my file. In exchange for please and thank-you he instead tightened the chain two links tighter. Next he chained my hands so that I was chicken-winged — nearly elbow to elbow, while chained to another prisoner who was clearly – as an intake deputy later put it, “Fucking nuts”. We were then put in the protective custody cage of the Sheriff’s bus where I had to sit in an awkward position unable to lean back for more than a one and a half hour drive. The chains were digging into and vibrating against my kidneys the whole way.

During this transport the deputies seemed to be manipulating the air-conditioner causing extreme episodes of heat inside the bus while driving speeds clearly in excess of the speed-limit; including while driving on treacherous curves through Morango coming down from Joshua Tree. It was terrifying and most of us were collectively holding our breath.

The detention center’s website says this about transporting inmates,

Inmates who are required to appear in court are transported by our Transportation Division, which safely moves approximately 122,000 inmates, traveling more than 1,000,000 miles annually. ~ WVDC website

What the website doesn’t tell you is how much money the jails receive every time they transport an inmate, even when it’s technically unnecessary.

There was an inmate in my unit who was schizophrenic. She began to suffer from acute paranoia and delusions. She was convinced everyone was talking about her and that we had put poison in her food. She was threatening to kill herself and no matter how many of us pushed our emergency buzzers the situation was ignored for an extended period of time completely disrupting the entire units psyche.

I later discovered that the woman had not been allowed her psychiatric medications since being arrested. Not only was she suffering the symptoms of her disease, she was also suffering from the effects of withdrawal. Eventually she was removed and put into another pod that had a mental health unit. As an aside, many mental health patients whose meds were being withheld for days, sometimes weeks, where prisoners in the facility I was at. It should be noted that any physician will attest to the dangers of suddenly stopping psychiatric medications.

Is There a Doctor in the [Big] House?

The WVDC website — as do many other detention facility sites, boasts of their medical care and concern for inmate health…

We are very proud of the medical and mental health services we provide.  Medical care is provided to the inmate from the time of booking through release.  All inmates are medically screened upon arrival and evaluated for medical and mental health conditions which could require continued care and treatment.  Health professionals are on duty 24/7 and provide a full range of services including daily physician sick call, medication administration, treatments, dialysis, radiology services, dental care and psychiatric care.  The facility houses the inmates with the greatest medical needs and includes two special medical/mental health housing areas staffed around the clock with medical/mental health professionals. ~ WVDC website

…the reality is a much different picture.

While in WVDC I twice filed medical requests for attention. Getting any kind of request slip is difficult at best and inmates treat them like bartering goods when others need them. To be able to get a hold of one is a major coup (the same goes for “inmate requests”, “library requests”, etc.).

I was barely urinating by my third or fourth day. I was experiencing upper and lower right-side pain. Also, after returning from court in JT — my upper back and neck were so painful and swollen from the abuse during transport, that I looked like a Hunchback and could barely move my neck. I spent the rest of my days at WVDC in extreme pain because of this; pain that went unacknowledged and untreated.

Thankfully, a few of the inmates saw the pain I was in and offered me some relief by passing me Tylenol and on a couple of occasions a muscle relaxer called Flexoral. One woman who had not previously spoken to me even made an attempt to give me an “adjustment”. I’m sure all of this was against the rules however my requests for help were ignored repeatedly by the deputies in charge. After the initial medical “screening” given to me upon intake I was never allowed to see a doctor again.

I would have filed a grievance over the rough handling as well as the lack of medical attention, but who could find a grievance report? Those? Those were gold!

There were many prisoners who needed medical attention. There were fellow inmates who were given meals with items they were documented to be severely allergic to, they were given medications that did not address their illness or situation or worse, given nothing at all.

Hearing inmates crying in pain throughout the day and night was a normal occurrence. Inmates with communicable diseases like Hepatitis C, prisoners detoxing from hard drugs and those being deprived psychiatric medications were all mixed in with the rest of us.

Dying on the Inside

On the heels of the federal investigation into abuses and torture, WVDC is also being investigated for inmate deaths.

Victorville Daily Press:

RANCHO CUCAMONGA • San Bernardino County sheriff’s officials are investigating the death of an inmate at the West Valley Detention Center on Thursday night. ~ Staff Reporters, Inmate dies at West Valley Detention Center, July 11, 2014

Highland News:

On Thursday, July 10th, 2014 at approximately 9:27 p.m., deputies discovered the victim alone in a cell suffering from an apparent medical emergency. Deputies and medical staff began treating the victim while emergency medical services were summoned to the scene. He was transported to Kaiser Fontana Hospital where he was pronounced deceased. An autopsy has been scheduled at the Riverside County Coroner’s Office to determine the cause of death. ~ Staff Reporters, West Valley Detention Center In-Custody Death Investigation, July 12, 2014

This mans death at West Valley is not a first. In fact last year another inmate died under similar circumstances and the family of that inmate is in the process of suing the facility.

Victorville Daily Press:

Three weeks before an inmate at West Valley Detention Center was reported dead Thursday from an apparent medical emergency, the family of an inmate who died there in June 2013 filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the jail, which they said ignored repeated calls for the inmate’s immediate medical attention.~ Shea Johnson, West Valley facing wrongful death suit, July 15, 2014

Sadly many women have also had miscarriages while in custody; some due to abuse others pure negligence. An inmate in my unit told me of her former cell-mate who was 4-months pregnant and bleeding. Calls to deputies went ignored. When a reply came the prisoner was told to lie down on their bunk…soon after the woman stood up in horrendous pain and her fetus was discharged from her body into the hands of the cell-mate.

Medical attention had been refused until it was too late.

Is There a God?

The facility provides medical, dental and mental health services and facilitates worship services to various denominations. ~ WVDC website

It is no secret that many prisoners find or rediscover spirituality while incarcerated. The inmates at WVDC were no different however, obtaining a bible was a true feat. I twice requested a bible to no avail and “church” services were only open to three people per unit. The services were non-denominational although hosted by a Catholic woman. I was fortunate enough to get to go once.

I finally was able to borrow a bible from another long-term inmate. This turned out to be quite a novelty because the more other inmates saw me praying or reading the bible the more they wanted to be around me. During lock-down my name would be called through the vents by fellow prisoners asking me to pray for them or to read scriptures to them. There was some comfort in this weird camaraderie.

Deputies were not happy when too many people gathered in the day-room to do a singular thing, like bible study. It was discouraged and was even at times considered a means to incite the unit’s population.

The Missing Re-Hab

Rehabilitating prisoners is supposed to be a part of what goes down when one is incarcerated however, at WVDV and other jails there is little or no rehabilitation going on.

Young girls strung out of meth or heroine are left to jones and detox without help or care and then. At no time did I witness or hear of any counseling for these women. Some received mandatory “drug court” as part of their sentence, but any actual attempt at helping any of these women was sadly missing.

The Sun:

It is misleading,said. The department is doing a lot in trying to rehabilitate and help these inmates. ~ SB Sheriff’s spokeswoman Jodi Miller, San Bernardino County graded with ‘double fail’ for prison realignment spending, November 26, 2013

Inmates are released and for many right back in again for the same drug issues. Considering this is the biggest gist of the WVDC population, you can see how rehabilitation is not profitable for the facility. In fact, little is done to stop the flow of drugs into the facility which comes in with prisoners and is even passed in by many of the bail bonds companies working the facility.

Censorship

Many inmates write. It passes the time and there is a lot going on in there worth writing about however, there are strict limits on how many pages an inmate can mail at a time and of course all of the mail is read.

After I was released one of the women I had met wrote me a letter and included a stamped envelope to ensure I would write back, the envelope never made it to me and was confiscated by the facility. I am quite sure they didn’t return it to her either.

There are prisoners who write books or articles that they have never had the pleasure and pride of seeing published because the contents were censored by their facility.

Salon and The American Reader:

In November 2008, a mail-order book addressed to Lou Johnson arrived at the Hilltop Unit, a state prison for women located in Gatesville, central Texas. Written by investigative journalist Silja Talvi, the book was titled Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, and chronicled the past decades’ sweeping upsurge in female incarceration as told through the stories of prisoners across the country. Talvi’s interviews cast light on the common threads of trauma and abuse these women shared, the increase in nonviolent drug charges that put them behind bars, and the troubling conditions they found inside.

Johnson, one of the women interviewed for the project, described the harsh and humiliating circumstances she endured at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) facility. Denied adequate medical care, refused meals for minor infractions such as talking in line, and forced to clean pipe chases “covered with fecal material” without gloves, Johnson summed up her experience as “cruel and unusual punishment.”

But Johnson was barred from reading her own account in print. ~ Andrea Jones, The American Reader, reprinted in Salon, Battling censorship behind bars, May 07, 2013

Cha Ching!

Jails and prisons in the United States are businesses and as such it is all about making money. The affluence of the prison/jail system is nowhere to be seen from the inmate’s perspective. Mattresses are ripped, clothing and linen are threadbare and people are sleeping in holding cells on the filthy floor in plastic “boats”.

WVDC:

Our Food Services Division serves three nutritious meals per day, providing over three million meals annually to inmates.  Our dietitian works closely with the medical team and provides consultation, writes and reviews therapeutic diet plans and oversees various religious diet meals. ~ WVDC website

Food is a combination of starches and soy “meats” or multi-colored bologna and salami served on dry crusted bread. On two occasions I found hair in my food and on another fruit flies embedded in the instant potatoes. Milk was often outdated and portions were small. Fresh fruit and peanut butter packets tended to be what got most through their days. Complaints of maggots in food at West Valley are common across the country and Chris Hedges’ Common Dreams article thoroughly describes the food issues in today’s jails:

Common Dreams:

Crystal Jordan, who has spent 23 years as a corrections officer in New Jersey and who works at the Burlington County Jail, and another corrections officer at the jail, who did not want to be named, told me that the food doled out to prisoners by Aramark is not only substandard but often spoiled. For nearly a decade Jordan has filed complaints about the conditions in the jail, including persistent mold on walls and elsewhere, with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and state and county officials. The results of her complaints have been negligible.

Aramark has been plagued by scandal across the country, but this does not seem to affect its ability to get new state and county contracts. More than 270 prisoners were sickened in April 2008 at Florida’s Santa Rosa Correctional Institution after eating Aramark chili. Some 50 prisoners at Colorado’s Larimer County Detention Center became ill in February 2008 after eating Aramark chili. Prisoners in Clayton County, Ga., were not served hot food from October 2009 to the following Jan. 22 because the pressure cookers in the jail kitchen were inoperable. In February 2009 a Camden County, N.J., health report found that the Aramark-run kitchen in the county jail had “mice throughout kitchen and storage area.”

The kitchen where the food for the inmates is prepared in Burlington is a disaster,” Jordan said. “The walk-in freezer is corroded. You can’t open it because of the stench inside. Stagnant water, mold and mildew is everywhere. The food vans that bring food from Mount Holly have maggots and no refrigeration. I have seen inmates served bread that has hair on it, luncheon meat that has mold on it, spoiled fruit and food on the trays that have bugs in it. But this is part of the deep cuts throughout the prison system. We have had periods in the jail when the inmates had no toilet paper, no sanitary napkins, no soap…

Cheap soy products are regularly substituted for meat. Rice, potatoes and pasta are the staples of most meals. ~ Chris Hedges,  Food Behind Bars Isn’t Fit for Your Dog, December 23, 2013

Being incarcerated isn’t about protecting you on the outside or me on the inside. It’s about the almighty dollar. In WVDC alone, the biggest population was drug offenders and San Bernardino County Sheriffs have no less than 10 major anti-drug teams on the streets.

Statement on Drug Enforcement in San Bernardino County:

The Sheriffs Narcotics Division is one of the region’s largest and most active narcotics enforcement units. The division is comprised of specially-trained, and highly dedicated, sworn and general personnel who cover a wide range of specific areas of enforcement. These personnel are arranged into several teams and task forces to provide a maximum level of narcotics enforcement for the citizens of San Bernardino County. Additionally, the division has teams or task force representatives in auto theft, parcel interdiction, D.E.A., H.I.D.T.A. and marijuana eradication. ~ SB County Sheriff’s website – FAIR USE

The facility is over-crowded and some inmates are offered plastic “boats” on the floor in holding cells in lieu beds. Each inmate that agrees to the boat is paid $100 per night (upon their release) and considered to have been processed and in a “bed”. I saw many people processed into my unit only to be let go within hours and replaced by someone new. Additionally, the inmate transfer game was in full-swing with prisoners being shuffled in and out of other facilities and back again. How much is the facility getting for each person in a “bed”?

The revolving door keeps the cash flowing. On my statement after release it showed I was actually charged a fee for being arrested (I already paid a $1700 fine) in addition to charges for what they call “fish kits” which are general hygiene bags they automatically issue you. They also charged me a co-pay for a doctor I never saw.

Friends and family are not allowed to send or bring you hygiene or food items. They are not even allowed to provide you stamps or paper. Everything a prisoner gets has to be purchased through the WVDC commissary at ridiculous prices for minuscule sizes. One inmate who allowed me to see her statement from her books was spending upwards of $1800 a month for commissary needs and charges (co-pays etc.).

You Too Are Not Immune

No crime, however small, is small enough to keep you safe once you have been entered into the system. In 2012, nearly 1 in every 35 adults in the United States was on probation or parole or incarcerated in prison or jail. Abuses are only able to continue when those who are abused remain silent. If you or someone you know experienced abuse at the hands of San Bernardino County Sheriffs — whether in custody or not please stand-up and file a complaint HERE.

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2 comments on “Excessive Force, Torture, Disease and Disgust: the State of U.S. Detention Centers

  1. Pingback: Excessive Force, Torture, Disease and Disgust: the State of U.S. Detention Centers | Challenging the Rhetoric

  2. Pingback: Boat Rides, Birdies and Boys … Oh My! | Cheri Speak

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