The shift of numerous inmates from state prisons to county jails has turned our attention to conditions in these local institutions. This morning’s news present a particularly tragic example: the brutal killing of 31-year-old Michael Tyree, an inmate at the Santa Clara jail, who was beaten to death by three guards. The San Jose Mercury reports:
The three guards at Santa Clara County Main Jail were only supposed to be conducting a routine search of Michael Tyree’s cell, looking for extra clothing or toiletries that inmates often try to hoard. Instead, the correctional officers did something “violent and cowardly,” Sheriff Laurie Smith said Thursday, that left the 31-year-old mentally ill man lying naked on the floor, covered in lacerations and bruises and bleeding to death internally.
During a news conference Thursday, flanked by 18 uniformed members of her command staff, Smith announced the arrest of the three correctional officers on suspicion of murder, just a week after Tyree’s severely beaten body was found in jail wing 6B.
“The disappointment and disgust I feel cannot be overstated,” she said. “His life had value.”
The murder allegations against correctional officers 28-year-old Jereh Lubrin, and 27-year-olds Matthew Farris and Rafael Rodriguez, unprecedented in the 165-year history of the Sheriff’s Office, have put the jail it runs under a harsh spotlight and drawn attention to the difficult plight and placement of the mentally ill.
Smith said she spoke privately with Tyree’s family, just hours after the arrests.
“I want to express my profound sorrow over the loss of Mr. Tyree,” Smith said, accusing her officers of losing their “moral compass.”
“This violent and cowardly act that took Mr. Tyree’s life is not indicative of the values we expect and honor with the men and women of this department.”
The murder allegations may be unprecedented, but other problems in the Santa Clara jail, and particularly violent behavior on the part of the guards, are not. In 2014, the jail observer reported that “the guards run the jail” and that numerous calls and complaints pertain to guard behavior.
The sheriff is to be commended for arresting the responsible guards–and if the system works properly, this should be no different than any other brutal homicide trial–but the county’s liability largely depends on the extent to which it was negligent in hiring, training, and supervising its staff.