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Men wait for an afternoon court appearance at the Milwaukee County Jail in 2009.
News

Just Another Week in Hell

The news from your local lockup is not good.

In San Jose, California, three jail guards stood trial this week, charged with beating an inmate to death, ripping his spleen nearly in half. In northeast Arkansas, two supervisors at a juvenile lockup pleaded guilty to conspiring to pepper-spray kids without cause. And in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an inquest revealed that jail guards cut off water to an inmate’s cell seven days before he died of dehydration.

At The Marshall Project, we regularly check in with newspapers around the country, collecting stories and links for Opening Statement, our daily email, and for The Record, our “searchable encyclopedia for criminal justice journalism.” This week we couldn’t help but be taken aback by the litany of horrors in county jails and juvenile detention centers, most of them inflicted on the mentally ill and minors.

The dehumanizing conditions in many lockups has received considerable coverage. Last year, HuffPost cataloged a year’s worth of deaths in the nation’s jails, including suicides. But the accounts published this week — a collection of stories condensed into just five days — reveal stunning misconduct by keepers and contempt for the kept.

The following roundup focuses only on local lockups. (If we included state prisons, this week’s coverage would include a story in St. Louis, in which a mentally ill inmate hanged himself while one guard surfed Twitter, Amazon, Facebook and LinkedIn, and another guard streamed the movie “Blue Streak” on Netflix, and a story in Sacramento, Calif., in which officers pepper-sprayed a mentally ill inmate and strapped him, naked, to a gurney for 72 hours.)

San Jose, Calif.: On Monday, a medical examiner testified in the murder trial of three guards at the Santa Clara County Main Jail. The guards stand accused of beating Michael Tyree, a mentally ill inmate, to death. The examiner, Dr. Joseph O’Hara, a Stanford University professor of pathology, found Tyree in his cell covered in what appeared to be a “mixture of feces and vomitus.” Tyree suffered wounds to his head and body, his spleen torn nearly in half. “He died a painful death,” O’Hara said. The Mercury News reported that the prosecutor, Matt Braker, showed jurors grisly autopsy photos. The newspaper then wrote: “The blank-faced guards looked on Monday as Braker played video clips showing the desperate attempt to revive Tyree. Each time the left side of the nude inmate’s chest was pressed down, his stomach rippled, as the blood and fluid from his massive internal injuries moved like a wave through his abdomen, O’Hara said. Tyree lost 40 to 50 percent of his blood from his lacerated liver and spleen, the doctor said.” The county previously settled a lawsuit filed by Tyree’s family for $3.6 million.

Batesville, Ark.: Two ex-supervisors at a juvenile lockup in Batesville pleaded guilty on Wednesday in federal court to criminal charges of conspiring to assault inmates. With other guards, the two supervisors pepper-sprayed youths who posed no threat, a release from the U.S. attorney’s office said, adding: “In some instances, they then shut the compliant juveniles in their cells after pepper spraying them to ‘let them cook,’ rather than immediately decontaminating them.” After assaulting inmates, officers falsified reports, federal prosecutors said. An FBI agent said the agency is “appalled at what occurred to these minors,” calling the staff’s actions “incomprehensible.” The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette previously wrote about abuses at this juvenile lockup and at the Yell County Juvenile Detention Center, where, the newspaper reported, “teens often were placed in a full-body restraint system called ‘The Wrap’ and then pepper-sprayed.”

Kansas City, Mo.: A lawsuit filed Wednesday likened a cell at the Jackson County Detention Center to a sewer. Excrement and urine back up, and an inmate might have to lug in water from a flight below just to flush his toilet. The lawsuit was the second filed in two months alleging staff indifference to “dangerous or repugnant conditions,” according to The Kansas City Star. The newspaper noted that concerns about the jail go beyond sanitation: “In the past 10 days, The Star has run an article about an inmate who died at the detention center in January after her fatal medical condition went undiagnosed by two nurses. On Friday, a federal indictment was unsealed charging four former guards with allegedly beating a shackled prisoner so badly he had to be hospitalized.”

Farmington, Utah: On Sunday the Standard-Examiner, a newspaper in Ogden, published a fiery editorial about the death of 46-year-old Kara Noakes in the Davis County Jail, located in Farmington. When Noakes was booked for failure to appear, jailers confiscated her blood-pressure pills and other medication. Two days later she was found cold and blue. The cause of her death was listed as “atherosclerotic and hypertensive cardiovascular disease (high blood pressure and heart disease), and other significant conditions.” The Standard-Examiner itemized the jail’s failures in Noakes’ case (not monitoring her health, not expediting her prescriptions, dropping her on her head when she was found in her cell) and wrote: “Since 2005, 15 people have died in the Davis County Jail. It’s time for a public accounting.”

Reno, Nev.: In a four-part series, “Death Behind Bars,” published earlier this month, the Reno Gazette-Journal profiled 13 inmates who died at the Washoe County jail, including a man pinned down by six deputies. On Monday, the newspaper uncovered a possible explanation for the lack of oversight that plagues so many lockups. County commissioners told the newspaper there was little they could do about the jail and its inmates, saying that responsibility was the sheriff’s. “State law, it turns out, has a different take: it’s the county commission’s job to look after not only the security of the facility, but the condition of the inmates there,” the newspaper reported. “In fact, the law requires the commission to inspect the facility and ‘inquire into the . . . treatment and condition of the prisoners’ every three months. But it appears commissioners were unaware of the law and the county has no formalized process for making such inquiries.”

Philadelphia: Philly.com, the digital edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, published an exposé on Monday of Wordsworth, a nonprofit residential treatment center for troubled kids, many suffering from mental illness. David Hess, 17, died there last fall in a confrontation with staffers, leading the state to shut the place down. “In the last decade, at least 49 sex crimes have been reported at Wordsworth, including 12 rapes and 23 accounts of sexual abuse,” according to the newspapers’ investigation. “Interviews, court records, state inspection reports, and police records reveal a trail of injuries to children, from broken bones to assaults to the suffocation death of Hess. Along the way, lawyers, licensing inspectors, and others found conditions there appalling and sounded the alarm with little success.”

Perryton, Texas: The Texas Civil Rights Project issued a press release on Monday announcing the settlement of a lawsuit stemming from the suicide of Amber May, an inmate at the Ochiltree County Jail in Perryton. “When Ms. May was arrested in 2014, she had disclosed her depression and other mental illnesses at the time of booking but was left unmonitored with access to phone cords — which she ultimately used to end her life, leaving behind two eight-year-old daughters.” The press release linked to a study, “Preventable Tragedies,” which profiled 10 inmates with mental health needs who died at other county jails throughout Texas.

Milwaukee: At an inquest on Monday, prosecutors said surveillance video shows three officers at the Milwaukee County Jail shutting off the water to the cell of Terrill Thomas, a mentally ill inmate who was being held in solitary. A week later, Thomas, who received no water or milk with his meals, was found dead, “the result of profound dehydration,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The county jail is run by Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., a conservative-media fixture profiled last year by The Marshall Project’s Maurice Chammah. On Thursday, a homicide detective with the Milwaukee Police Department testified at the inquest that sheriff’s officials deceived police investigating Thomas’ death, withholding key information. “It’s unconscionable,” the detective testified. “It’s like you’re hiding something.”