Grand Jury Avoids Taking Brutality Issue Head-On In Report On Jail

The 2014-2015 San Bernardino County Grand Jury concluded its year-long session this week, delivering what is essentially a clean bill of health to the sheriff’s department with regard to conditions at five of the detention facilities/jails the department runs, a conclusion reached without any inquiry into allegations of guard-on-prisoner brutality raised in four separate lawsuits filed in roughly the same time frame as the grand jury’s term, which corresponded as well with an ongoing FBI investigation.
In its survey, the grand jury looked at the 240-inmate capacity Central Juvenile Detention and Assessment Facility, the 200-inmate capacity High Desert Juvenile Detention and Assessment Center, the 261-inmate capacity Rancho Cucamonga County Superior Courthouse Holding Area, the 338-inmate capacity County Justice Center Holding Area in San Bernardino and the 1,446-inmate capacity Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center near Devore.
The grand jury did not consider conditions at three of the larger detention facilities and jails maintained by the sheriff’s department, including the West Valley Detention Facility in Rancho Cucamonga, the High Desert Detention Facility in Adelanto and the Central Detention Facility in San Bernardino.
The grand jury used the guidelines provided by the state of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Corrections Standards Authority in conducting its inspections. In its report, the grand jury found, “There are no major discrepancies found at any of the five county detention centers the grand jury inspected. All personnel were knowledgeable and professional during each site visit. The grand jury was impressed with the overall cleanliness of each of the county facilities and the professionalism demonstrated by all personnel during each site visit.”
For the most part, the report was laudatory about the conditions in the surveyed facilities.
The Central Juvenile Detention and Assessment Facility, according to the report “was clean, neat and well maintained” and had a “very impressive library.”
The High Desert Juvenile Detention and Assessment Center, according to the report, “was clean, neat and well maintained,” although the report noted, “Some inmates have problems with visitors due to the distance.”
The Rancho Cucamonga County Superior Courthouse Holding Area, according to the report “was clean, neat and well maintained.”
The San Bernardino County Justice Center Holding Area, according to the grand jury report, “is a new building. The facility was clean, neat and well maintained.”
The Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center, according to the report, “was clean, neat and well maintained. The county sheriff’s and fire department have a partnership to train inmates. The shower area throughout needed painting. At the Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center, it was observed that female inmates handled the call center for inmate visitation requests at all facilities. Also, the Glen Helen kitchen and bakery facilities prepared all meals and baked goods at that location for all the adult detention centers. This is both cost efficient and a source for creating skill development.”
While the grand jury report left the reader with the general impression that all is well at the facilities, closer scrutiny of the report itself showed that the grand jury had not engaged in a very penetrating examination of the several facilities’ conditions. The grand jurors did review the jailors documentation with regard to complaints lodged by the inmates, but did carry out an independent examination beyond that and interviewed none of the inmates. Rather, the grand jurors accepted at face value, and reproduced in the report, detention center staff’s descriptions of the complaints and reports of their resolutions.
For example, in describing inmate grievances, complaints, incidences and resolutions at the Central Valley Juvenile Detention and Assessment Center, it was reported simply that the keepers at the facility, in response to a “youth on youth fight” and “staff and youth behavior issues” had “secured [the youths] in [a] room, pepper sprayed [and] handcuffed” them.
At the High Desert Juvenile Detention and Assessment Center, the record review with regard to inmate grievances and complaints from May 2014 until July 2014 showed that in response to a complaint of “staff being racist, ” the complaining “youth [was] counseled;” 23 inmates who “wanted transfer to Central Juvenile Unit” saw 13 of those request approved and 10 denied; and a youth who “wants to be moved to another unit” was “counseled and encouraged to run a good program.”
At the Rancho Cucamonga Superior Court Holding Area, the single document relating to a grievance compiled by facility staff reproduced into the grand jury report stated that when an inmate claimed the “Shackles [were] too tight on his ankle, and claimed he was assaulted by two deputies,” staff had responded that “The use of force was appropriate in response to the inmate’s action.”
The 2014-15 grand jury session ran against a backdrop of revelations and lawsuits pertaining to the brutalization of inmates in San Bernardino County detention facilities and jails.
On May 7, 2014 attorneys Stan Hodge, Jim Terrell and Sharon Bruner filed a lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court in Los Angeles on behalf of John Hanson, Lamar Graves, Brandon Schilling, Christopher J. Sly, Eddie Caldero and Michael Mesa, all of whom were housed at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga between January 1, 2013 and the end of March 2014.
According to that lawsuit, Hanson, Graves, Schilling, Sly, Caldero and Mesa were subjected to horrific treatment inflicted directly by deputies Brock Teyechea, Nicholas Oakley, Russell Kopasz, Robert Escamilla, Robert Morris, Eric Smale, Daniel Stryffeler and Andrew Cruz, as well as two civilian jailers, one of whom has been identified as Brandon Stockman and another whose identity remains unclear. Also named in the lawsuit are San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon and the commander of the West Valley Detention Center, captain Jeff Rose.
The suit alleges that the inmates underwent treatment which amounted to “applications of unreasonable and unlawful force” that “deprived the plaintiffs of their right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures protected by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States. Specifically, according to the suit, during their incarceration “the plaintiffs were subjected by defendants to beatings, torture including but not limited to extending the handcuffed arms behind the plaintiffs causing extraordinary pain to plaintiff’s body, electric shock, including electric shock to their genitalia, sleep deprivation, had shotguns placed to their heads and sodomy.”
Another case filed in May 2014 in U.S. District Court was brought by the family of Gonzalo Arroyo relating to a July 5, 2013 incident where Arroyo, who was booked on domestic violence charges, fell to his death from the second story of West Valley Detention Center housing unit.
In October 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of 15 plaintiffs in U.S. District Court naming the sheriff’s department and the county, alleging homosexual, bisexual and transgender inmates in San Bernardino County’s jails were routinely subjected to harsh treatment.
A lawsuit filed by attorney Matthew Eanet on behalf of former West Valley inmate Eric Wayne Smith in January alleges that prisoners housed in protective custody for their own personal safety and protection were singled out by the sheriff’s department jailors for abuse and torture.
Before the 2014-15 San Bernardino County Grand Jury session began, in April 2014, the FBI sent several agents into the West Valley Detention Center in response to reports of widespread abuse there and “walked off,” i.e., escorted from the premises, four deputies who worked there. Three rookie deputies — Brock Teyechea, Andrew Cruz and Nicholas Oakley — were terminated by the department shortly thereafter. Even as a joint FBI/sheriff’s department criminal and administrative investigation into abuse and brutality against inmates by sheriff’s deputies was undertaken, there were recurrent reports that Sheriff John McMahon and his command officers were acting to protect longer-serving sheriff’s employees allegedly implicated in the abuse.
Word leaked out that the 2014-15 Grand Jury was looking into the situation and some anticipated a far-reaching, deep and meaningful probe would be undertaken. Those individuals were disappointed with the anemic report released this week.
Deputy district attorney Charles Umeda, the grand jury adviser, told the Sentinel that the grand jury had pulled its punches because of legal considerations.
“It’s not a matter of the grand jury not having the authority to look into the issue of brutality in the jails,” Umeda said. “We did not take that up because there is ongoing litigation relating to that issue.”
Both legal and practical investigative considerations were at play in the decision to rein in the grand jury’s investigation, Umeda said.
“The fact that there is ongoing litigation got in our way,” he said. “There were press reports of other agencies being involved. You have an investigative process that is taking place. You have other agencies currently investigating the sheriff’s department and we don’t want the grand jury to step on the other agencies. At the same time, we don’t want to get involved in a case while it is going to court. When an issue is being litigated, the best place to determine the facts is in court where you have a hearing process that is taking place.”
Umeda said the existence of litigation or outside investigations does not automatically exclude the grand jury from taking up issues involved in such lawsuits or probes. Nevertheless, he said, the grand jury is going to tread lightly.
Another consideration pertaining to how energetic the grand jury will be with regard to a particular issue is the strength of the information at its disposal, including clarity on what wrongdoing occurred and who perpetrated it, Umeda said. “A lot depends on the scope of the complaints that come to us.” he said. By his comments, Umeda seemed to indirectly confirm that outsiders were pushing during the just-concluded grand jury session to have the grand jury aggressively dig into the subject of brutality in the county detention facilities. When asked about what reports the grand jury had received and their specificity, Umeda responded, “I can’t comment on that. I’m not able to discuss any information that came to the grand jury that hasn’t been published.”
Umeda took issue with the suggestion that the grand jury had shrunk from its duty to look into wrongdoing on the part of public officials, in this case sheriff’s deputies who were abusing their authority. “I don’t think we were shying away from this issue,” he said.

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