Three Jail Guards Arrested in Santa Clara Jail Inmate Death

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.

Expanding the Definition of Juveniles: SB 261 and Adolescents

Just in time to be an interesting lead to our upcoming event, Juveniles in Adult Institutions, a bill–SB 261–has passed in California that expands the definition of juveniles.

The bill, proposed by Senator Hancock, is an extension of SB 260, which passed in 2013. Under that bill, as explained in this guide, people sentenced to lengthy prison terms in adult institutions for offenses they committed under the age of 18 receive a special “youth offender hearing” before the parole board, in which juvenile development is taken into account in the decision whether to release.

If Governor Brown signs SB 261, the age cutoff will rise to 23.

There are some very good reasons, grounded in developmental psychology, for expanding the definition of “juvenile” to adolescent years. We have known for a while that the transition from juvenile to adult is non-linear, due to considerable changes in brain chemistry, and that adolescent brain development continues occurring until the mid-20s. The emerging findings from this research have already shaped some legal decisions, such as Roper v. Simmons, Miller v. Alabama, and Graham v. Florida.

At our event on September 17, we’ll be discussing the implications of these developmental psychology findings on our practices of trying juveniles as adults. Please join us!

BREAKING NEWS: Settlement in Ashker v. Brown: The End of Indefinite Solitary Confinement in CA

Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights has announced that the parties to Ashker v. Brown, the case challenging indefinite solitary confinement in California, have reached a settlement. According to CCR’s press release,

Today, the parties have agreed on a landmark settlement in the federal class action Ashker v. Governor of California that willeffectively end indeterminate, long-term solitary confinement in all California state prisons. Subject to court approval, the agreement will result in a dramatic reduction in the number of people in solitary across the state and a new program that could be a model for other states going forward. The class action was brought in 2012 on behalf of prisoners held in solitary confinement at the Pelican Bay prison, often without any violent conduct or serious rule infractions, often for more than a decade, and all without any meaningful process for transfer out of isolation and back to the general prison population. Ashker argued that California’s use of prolonged solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and denies prisoners the right to due process. 

. . . 

Today’s settlement transforms California’s use of solitary confinement from a status-based system to a behavior-based system; prisoners will no longer be sent to solitary based solely on gang affiliation, but rather based on infraction of specific serious rules violations. It also limits the amount of time a prisoner can spend in the Pelican Bay SHU and provides a two-year step-down program for transfer from SHU to general population.

The agreement creates a new non-solitary but high-security unit for the minority of prisoners who have been held in any SHU for more than 10 years and who have a recent serious rule violation. They will be able to interact with other prisoners, have small-group recreation and educational and vocational programming, and contact visits.

The full details of the settlement are available here.

This is a major victory for those of us who have been fighting against indefinite solitary confinement for many years–especially the inmates, who have participated in two hunger strikes to protest against the physical and psychological harms associated with this practice. It is also remarkable that, in an era in which such struggles often take the shape of bipartisan financial improvements, this struggle was fought as an old-skool human rights pursuit, and ended in an impressive and important victory. The statement from the plaintiffs reads as follows:

This settlement represents a monumental victory for prisoners and an important step toward our goal of ending solitary confinement in California, and across the country.  California’s agreement to abandon indeterminate SHU confinement based on gang affiliation demonstrates the power of unity and collective action.  This victory was achieved by the efforts of people in prison, their families and loved ones, lawyers, and outside supporters.  Our movement rests on a foundation of unity: our Agreement to End Hostilities.  It is our hope that this groundbreaking agreement to end the violence between the various ethnic groups in California prisons will inspire not only state prisoners, but also jail detainees, county prisoners and our communities on the street, to oppose ethnic and racial violence.  From this foundation, the prisoners’ human rights movement is awakening the conscience of the nation to recognize that we are fellow human beings.  As the recent statements of President Obama and of Justice Kennedy illustrate, the nation is turning against solitary confinement. We celebrate this victory while, at the same time, we recognize that achieving our goal of fundamentally transforming the criminal justice system and stopping the practice of warehousing people in prison will be a protracted struggle.  We are fully committed to that effort, and invite you to join us.

Todd Ashker

Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa

Luis Esquivel

George Franco

Richard Johnson

Paul Redd

Gabriel Reyes

George Ruiz

Danny Troxell