Santa Clara County

Fear, Intimidation and Lack of Accountability Existed Prior to Inmate Tyree's Jail Death

A four-month-long investigation by NBC Bay Area has uncovered a troubling history of complaints of abuse, fear, intimidation and lack of accountability at Santa Clara County's jails.

The Investigative Unit analyzed years of data from Santa Clara County's Jail Observer Program and found complaints of physical and mental abuse at the hands of corrections officers dating back to at least to 2013.

NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit also spoke with eight current employees of the Sheriff's Office including current corrections officers. All but one agreed to speak only if NBC Bay Area protected their identities because of fears of retaliation from the Sheriff's administration.

All of the corrections officers told The Investigative Unit the same story: a historic trail of abuse and mistreatment of inmates at the hands of some corrections officers, short staffing, inadequate training, shortage of inmate bed space and low morale.

All eight corrections officers told NBC Bay Area these issues, combined with a lack of accountability, created a confluence of events that eventually lead to the death of inmate Michael Tyree in September 2015.

Tyree was discovered beaten to death in his cell on August 26, 2015. He was in jail on a mental health hold but had actually served his formal jail sentence. Instead of being housed on the mental health floor of the jail, sheriff’s officials say Tyree was being kept in the general population because there was no room for him in an outside mental health facility. Three corrections officers, Matthew Farris, Jereh Lubrin and Rafael Rodriguez, all face murder charges in the alleged beating death. All three have pleaded not guilty to the charges. They also are accused of assaulting another inmate the same night Tyree was found dead.

All these issues, the officers said, continue to exist. Each of them said they worry that if these issues are not addressed they will continue to create a toxic and dangerous culture that could put additional inmates and officers safety at risk.

After inmate Tyree's death, an independent Blue Ribbon Commission was appointed by Santa Clara County supervisors to look into the circumstances surrounding the death and the culture at both the main jail facility and the Elmwood Minimum Security facility.

In a scathing public session, two independent auditing groups headed by attorneys based outside Santa Clara County reported findings similar to NBC Bay Area's reporting. The independent auditors interviewed 944 inmates, eight family members and 33 corrections officers, all anonymously.

Both teams presented their findings and analysis to the Santa Clara County Jail Blue Ribbon Commission in a public hearing on Feb. 20, 2016.

Click to see both teams' reports: Zisser ReportEmblidge Report

The data reviewed by NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit and the eight corrections officers who spoke about what went on at the jail over the years paint a picture of dysfunction that has been taking place at both jail facilities well before Tyree's death.

The corrections officers pointed to lack of training, short staffing and a lack of accountability at the jail dating back to at least 2010.

"It goes back to the culture. Right now everyone's afraid to speak," said one officer, who has worked at the jail for more than a dozen years and asked to remain anonymous. There is a "lack of oversight." There is the "public appearance, but the actuality of what is occurring in the (jail) facilities is a different thing."

One officer who did speak on the record was Sean Allen, a training officer who also serves as a corrections officer at the jail facilities.

In his interview with NBC Bay Area, Allen was acting as an employee representative of the Santa Clara County Department of Corrections.

The "culture has changed tremendously since I started (nearly 20 years ago)," Allen said. "Training is different" than it used to be. "And I think training is a huge issue. Lack of training."

Allen has filed suit in U.S. District Court against Santa Clara County and the sheriff for civil rights violations and harassment. In response to his civil complaint, the county and sheriff deny the allegations he makes in the suit.

Read the Civil Complaint and the County and Sheriff's answer.

"You have to increase your staffing," Allen said. "Increase your training base. Increase your bed space. You give people the tools to do the job."

Allen told NBC Bay Area Senior Investigative Reporter Stephen Stock these problems existed well before Michael Tyree's death.

For two decades, Santa Clara County has had the independent Jail Observer Program, based in Santa Clara County's Human Resources Department. The program takes anonymous calls from inmates, families and even corrections officers who wish to report problems at the jail.

"The intent of the Jail Observer Program is to provide a neutral resource for residents, inmates and staff," said Kate Jones, Jail Observer Program Coordinator.

Since 2013, the program has been transcribing each anonymous complaint in its entirety to better track and classify the problems occurring in jail facilities.

NBC Bay Area was able to obtain that data and read every one of the 227 complaints filed since July 2013.

After receiving the complaint and entering it into a database, Jones then follows up and issues a yearly report seen by the sheriff, jail administrators and county supervisors.

From 2014 to 2015, Jones said she's seen a doubling of complaints from 93 a year to nearly 200.

"I got behind (in tracking the data) because of the increase in calls," Jones told NBC Bay Area.

NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit reviewed every one of those formal transcripts dating back to 2013.

The complaints covered a variety of issues including the jail environment, lack of appropriate medical care, to issues over prescription medication and officer treatment of inmates.

Since July 2013 through March 2015 (the latest raw data available to The Investigative Unit), there have been 22 different officer-involved treatment-related issues, including specific allegations of physical abuse.

Click here to see the spreadsheet of data from 2013, 2014, 2015.

Included among the specific allegations of physical abuse was a report of inmates being prompted to beat each other while the officers watched, another inmate getting pepper sprayed through the slot of a cell door and yet another inmate was beaten while restrained by handcuffs.

The report does not quantify what action, if any, including discipline, was taken in any of these cases.

Click here to read some of the complaints.

Leaders of the public watchdog group Silicon Valley De-Bug, based in San Jose, said they've known about these troubling questions for years because they've heard a constant stream of complaints and worry from the families of inmates spending time at the Santa Clara County jail.

"We knew that this was something that was larger than just isolated incidents," said De-Bug director Raj Jayadev.

The number of complaints from inmate families "became this eclipsing issue that would keep coming out every week of a family saying 'I'm really concerned about my son or my loved one,'" Jayadev said.

"This idea that this is a new problem that has no history is just a false narrative," Jayadev said. "I think the data here proves that complaints have been surfaced that they've been communicated" to the Sheriff's administrators.

"There are some things that concern me greatly, of course," Sheriff Smith said. "We're really committed to making change and going forward with a reform movement."

When asked about the questions surrounding the jail culture, Sheriff Smith said, "Let me get a chance to look at the report and everything. But I heard a lot of disturbing things."

When asked if these problems stem from a failure in her administration, Smith replied, "It's the entire organization. You know the entire organization there needs to be a lot of reforms. Absolutely."

Sheriff Smith confirmed that she and her administration knew about this Jail Observer Program complaint data. She said she's not sure why there has been an increase in the last few years. Smith explained it could be everything from better reporting, to an increase in frustration among corrections officers.

Sheriff Smith blamed budget cuts for cuts in the staffing levels at the jail during the last three years.

The Sheriff told NBC Bay Area she would be open to considering the appointment of an independent oversight body to monitor the jail going forward if the Blue Ribbon Commission made such a recommendation.


Contact Us