Inmate Abuse in County Jails: All Too Common, All Too Invisible

Three Placer County Sheriff’s deputies were arrested on Wednesday on charges of excessive force involving at least six different inmates at the Placer County Auburn Main Jail. The allegations came to light after a supervisor routinely viewed video footage from the facility. The initial review of the video led to an investigation and ultimately to the discovery of additional incidents. The incidents apparently date back to late November but were only discovered in recent weeks.

The accusations involve veteran officers. Sergeant Megan Yaws, Deputy Robert Madden and Corrections Officer Jeffrey Villenueva. At least one officer was also charged with falsifying a police report. Supervisors became suspicious after reviewing the video tape and realizing the use of force report was inconsistent with the images on the video.

Abuse of inmates inside of county jails is rampant in Northern California. While Placer County is no exception, it is hardly the worst offender. The conditions inside of most county jails and juvenile halls would surprise people unfamiliar with the criminal justice system. Jails and prisons are violent places. Some level of violence in such institutions is unavoidable. Many of the people in county jails suffer from undiagnosed and untreated mental health problems and substance abuse problems – they’re not always in control of their actions and law enforcement needs to be able to respond to protect themselves and the other inmates.

However, talk to anyone any who has been in any county jail and you will hear tales of persistent violence and abuse being directed at the inmates. Violence far above and beyond what may be necessary to control a situation. The Sacramento County Main Jail is the recipient of frequent criticism for its living conditions. Part of the problem is proving the allegations. Often times, there either aren’t many witnesses to abuse, or the witnesses have credibility problems.  People with multiple felony convictions aren’t likely to be believed when they claim a member of law enforcement assaulted them.

The other problem with cleaning up inmate abuse is that outside of law enforcement there aren’t a lot of groups focused on the cause. San Quentin’s Prison Law Office does amazing work on behalf of inmates, but they are only one organization and have to expend their limited resources carefully. Civil rights attorneys can only accept cases that financially make sense. The economic reality of the situation is that suing a county jail and its officers for beating up an inmate here or there doesn’t make monetary sense.

Perhaps the greatest problem is this: just because law enforcement may be operating within the realms of approved protocol doesn’t make their conduct acceptable by cultural norms. Law enforcement standards over the years have become harsher and harsher. The amount of force that is approved to be used against inmates and indeed ordinary citizens has increased.  Inmate fear of law enforcement does not equate to a respect for authority.

What is particularly concerning about this case is that a sergeant was involved in both the conduct and the attempted cover up. Officers further up the chain of command are supposed to be role models for their colleagues. Beating inmates and falsifying police reports is hardly the way any role model should act. Equally endemic to the violence inside county jails is the code of silence among law enforcement that frequently prevents them from exposing the wrongdoing of their peers.

The Placer County Sheriff’s Office is be commended for their response in this situation. The “brass” clearly does not condone the alleged actions of the officers involved. The brass is in the best position to discover instances of abuse just as they did in this situation. Hopefully the actions of the Placer County Sheriff’s Office and the Placer County District Attorney’s Office send a message – one that is heard loud and clear by departments across the state.