Joe Arpaio Turns a Blind Eye to Jailhouse Justice
A few months ago, Alan DeLong sat down to watch a new reality show on the Discovery Channel.
First Week In goes inside jails around the nation and does mini-profiles of newly incarcerated inmates as they experience degradations at their hardcore digs.
The episode was titled "Intimidation" (not to be confused with the subsequent installment, "Fresh Meat").
New Times cover story
The subject matter hit DeLong hard.
He is a crusty Phoenix man who has had his share of dark times in his 57 years, and he doesn't scare easily.
But DeLong says his emotions overwhelmed him as he watched the part of First Week In filmed inside the Durango Jail, which is part of Maricopa County's array of penal facilities.
Almost eight years ago, as an inmate at Durango, DeLong endured what he calls simply "my worst moment."
The moment, which actually lasted about a minute, changed DeLong's life forever.
Four or five thugs attacked him without warning one night in September 2004 after he stepped into a bathroom to fill up a water jug.
It was the sole bathroom in D-pod of housing unit 6 at Durango, a "general population" facility in South Phoenix that opened in 1976.
The lead "torpedo," or enforcer, inside the bathroom was a member of the "Chicanos," American-born Latinos locked up at the time. He was Abel Hinojosa, a sturdy Gila Bend man in his mid-20s who was about to be sentenced on a criminal damage rap.
Hinojosa sucker-punched DeLong in the right eye after the older man turned around after feeling a tap on his shoulder. He and his pals then beat DeLong savagely until he was able to escape from the room.
The detention officer who escorted DeLong to the county hospital fainted when he saw the horrific damage to the inmate's eye.
Alan DeLong turned out to be the wrong target, a tragic case of mistaken identity. Another older white man who apparently owed a "Chicano" about $60 was the true target.
All this happened just hours after a Maricopa County judge had sentenced DeLong to 2 1/2 years in prison on an aggravated-drunken-driving conviction.
But a scheduling snafu led to his temporary return to Durango instead of getting shipped to a state prison in Kingman.
The bathroom where the torpedo and his cohorts pummeled DeLong was the longtime epicenter of Durango's continued prisoner (or prisoners)-on-prisoner assaults.
Most beatings were sanctioned by leaders of various incarcerated ethnic groups — mostly Latinos and Anglos — ostensibly to keep the general peace between races.
The bathroom was the pod's ground zero with good reason:
Citing "privacy concerns," sheriff's officials declined to install security cameras or audio equipment inside Durango's bathrooms, and detention officers usually had no idea what was going on there.
In a 2009 civil deposition, MCSO Sergeant Rocky Medina was asked: "From your experience as a detention officer, are the restrooms a problem area?"
"Yes," Medina replied. "Because there is no detection. There is no visual. There is no camera. It's a blind spot to everybody. And the way the pods are set up at Durango, even if you're looking on the monitor or you're looking directly into the pod, you cannot see into the restroom or the cells themselves, to be honest."
Another detention officer, Trevor King, was asked: "If someone has to assault someone, is [the bathroom] where they would do it?"
"You can say that. Yes," King said.
"And that was because there weren't any cameras there?"
"Well, because they don't want to get caught."
A twist: From 2000 to 2003, the Maricopa County sheriff's website championed Joe Arpaio's "Jail Cam," a 24-hour webcast that showed live video of arrestees moving about at the Madison Street Jail. Plaintiffs in a civil case that Arpaio eventually lost alleged that, for months, one camera had captured images of the toilet and nearby area in the women's holding cell. They argued that MCSO officials repositioned the camera only in response to the lawsuit. Arpaio countered that his officers had moved the camera hours after learning that images of the toilet area were on the Internet.
Beyond having no cameras in the Durango bathrooms, detention officers later admitted that they rarely stepped inside to see for themselves what was going on.
One officer said in a deposition that he would seek assistance if a colleague did go in the bathroom and didn't reappear by the count of five.
"He has a problem or he's in a world of hurt," the officer said of the hypothetical situation.
The Durango Jail in 2004 was a "gladiator school," as one inmate later dubbed it.
Back to that Discovery Channel show that aired in Phoenix earlier this year.
What infuriated Alan DeLong most about First Week In was how little had changed since he fled D-pod holding a blood-soaked towel over his shattered eye.
The show's unfettered access to Sheriff Arpaio's jail spoke for itself.
The bathroom situation at Durango was precisely the same late last year (when the TV cameras were inside) as in 2004 — only the names and faces of the inmates were different:
The latest generation of "torpedoes," also known as "chin checkers," continued to use their fists with impunity in the privacy of the john with little fear of reprisals from MCSO officials.
DeLong says the show made him physically ill.
"I nearly got killed in that damned bathroom after those jerks jumped me," he tells New Times. "Just because Joe Arpaio didn't put security cameras in so they don't have to do anything when whippings happen. You might think that they would have learned a lesson in jail security and inmate safety from what happened to me. But Arpaio doesn't give a damn about a nobody like me losing an eye."
In April, Joe Arpaio announced that jail officials were "locking down" the third floor of downtown Phoenix's Fourth Avenue Jail.
The sheriff told reporters that Mexican Mafia inmates were causing an excessive number of brawls and other mayhem, placing detention officers at increased risk.
The inmates' endgame, according to Arpaio, was to take over "his" jail.
"What do they have to lose?" the sheriff said. "Nothing other than to make a name for themselves and be a hero when they go to prison and say, 'We took care of that jail, the sheriff, and his officers.'"
Arpaio said his lockdown was designed to "send a message not only to this group of mafia, but to everybody in the jail. You will not run our jail system."
The irony of Arpaio's comments did not escape Alan DeLong, who learned firsthand that the sheriff does not have a problem allowing inmate "leaders" to dispense so-called jailhouse justice.
No doubt, many jails and prisons — and not just Joe Arpaio's highly controversial facilities — are violent places where inmates routinely fight like mad dogs and sometimes maim and kill each other.
Hundreds of detention officers suffer various levels of assault around the nation every year. Some are seriously hurt, and occasionally an officer is killed in the line of duty.
Jails aren't kindly places, aren't supposed to be.
But Joe Arpaio's jails have cost inmates their lives and county taxpayers multi-millions of dollars in litigation costs, adverse jury verdicts, and out-of-court settlements. (New Times published a story in late 2007, "Inhumanity Has a Price," stating that county taxpayers at that point had been on the hook for $41.4 million in lawsuit payouts during Arpaio's reign. That figure has climbed to more than $50 million, according to county sources.)
The U.S. Department of Justice investigated the Maricopa County jail system in an ill-fated investigation that began in 1995 and ended tepidly after then-Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano made political book with Arpaio ("Napolitano's Sorry Service in Arizona," November 27, 2008).
Still, the feds did find a "pattern of excessive force" by Arpaio's detention officers against inmates in jails both grossly overcrowded and understaffed.
More akin to what happened to Alan DeLong than excessive force by officers was the case of Jeremy Flanders, a jail trusty nearly beaten to death by fellow inmates at Tent City in 1996.
A Maricopa County jury later awarded Flanders $440,532 in actual damages and $195,000 in punitive damages.
The judge in this case wrote, "The history of violence, the overcrowding, the abundance of weaponry, the lack of supervision, and the absence of necessary security measures supports the jury's findings of deliberate indifference to inmate safety."
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Flanders verdict in an opinion that was worded just as strongly.
Joel Robbins, a Phoenix attorney who is representing DeLong in an ongoing lawsuit against Sheriff Arpaio, also represented Flanders.
Arpaio's lawyers deny wrongdoing, writing that the sheriff "has consistently denied that he was negligent, much less grossly negligent. An assault by one inmate on another, because of a mistaken identity, does not equal gross negligence. Additionally, inmate-on-inmate assaults can and do occur in every correctional institution."
Correct, on the latter point.
But one of Arpaio's detention officers, James Sawyer, told the Discovery Channel team something on camera that altered the playing field in the DeLong civil case.
"When inmates first arrive to the facilities," Sawyer said, "you'll have these racially designated leaders, if you will, that will make up their own rules.
"The inmates do get brought around — they get shown what to do, where they can go. That's how [inmate leaders] maintain their interior social dynamics. These rules are not authorized by the county, and the inmates will follow these rules, or they'll be beaten up in the bathroom."
Attorney Robbins ran with that, noting in legal papers, "Officer Sawyer's comment suggests that "rather than being a case of [simple] negligence, [it] supports a conscious decision to permit the racial gangs to inflict injuries to enforce gang rules within the jail."
A trial date is scheduled for later this year.
"I knew in 2004 how crazy things were inside that place," Alan DeLong says. "Now I know a whole lot more."
He concedes that it was his fault that he landed in Durango for drinking and driving.
But he can't reconcile the loss of his eye with his belief that the unprovoked attack could have been prevented by basic security measures.
"I didn't have a life sentence coming to me for a DUI," DeLong says. "But I kind of got one anyway."
That he has to stick a glass eye into his empty right socket every day before work constantly reminds DeLong of 2004, as do the throbbing headaches, the depression, and other emotional upheavals.
"I want it all to be gone," he says of his trauma. "But I dream it, think it, feel it all day long. I can't escape it."
A cocky young man recently incarcerated on charges of heroin possession is about to be berated on camera by the head of the "Woods."
That would be short for "Peckerwoods," a slur usually employed against Caucasians, but is used in this instance by white inmates themselves at the Durango Jail to distinguish themselves from the "Pisces" (Mexican nationals), "Chicanos" (American-born Latinos), "Kinfolk" (African-Americans), and "Chiefs" (Native Americans).
The Woods' boss in this episode of First Week In is Jason Ginn, a burly, straight-talking fellow in his mid-30s. Standing in his jail black-and-whites, Ginn carefully explains his "law and order" role inside the pod.
"Basically, each race has its own head, [its] own counsel," says Ginn, who was facing aggravated identity theft and other charges at the time.
"We try to maintain order when someone needs to be disciplined. This whole place [the Durango Jail] has got cameras, so anytime we need to handle anything, it gets taken care of in the bathroom."
Yes, the infamous Durango bathrooms.
Two of Ginn's "aides" hover over the addict as Ginn evenly informs him that punishment is at hand (or fist).
"When you come in here, you read the rules," the boss tells him. "You understand that the number-one rule is no disrespect. I was told yesterday you disrespected the head of the Pisces. You said, 'You don't know who the fuck you're talking to.'"
The kid starts to say that he meant no disrespect to the Latino, but Ginn interrupts him: "Regardless of how you meant it, we take disrespect really seriously."
Ginn informs him that he will be punished inside the bathroom by a Woods torpedo with a punch or two to the jaw.
The torpedo of choice is 19-year-old Spencer Bird, whose broken right hand is wrapped in a cast, the result, he says, of a previous day's chin check in the same bathroom.
Bird leads the camera crew into the john and points to a corner where, he says, he prefers to administer chin checks.
This bathroom is designed just like the one in the pod where Alan DeLong was thrashed in 2004.
"It gets really ugly," Bird says. "People's teeth get chipped. I don't enjoy doing it. But when people break the rules, we gotta do what we gotta do to keep the peace in here."
The show never reveals whether the chin check ever happened.
Alan DeLong pleaded guilty to aggravated drunken driving in August 2004, and because of an earlier DUI conviction a decade earlier, he faced mandatory prison time.
He had migrated to Arizona from his native Missouri in his early 30s, stopping by to visit a sister after a trip to California.
DeLong stayed here and found a job with Paddock Pools, for whom he had worked for more than a decade by 2004. After his guilty plea, company officials promised DeLong they would rehire him after prison.
He was incarcerated at the Durango Jail after his guilty plea, where he awaited a sentencing date in late September 2004.
It was hellish at the jail.
More than 100 prisoners crammed into the D-pod, designed to hold just 32. They spent much of their days in "boats," which is what inmates called their plastic cots they stuck wherever they could find a space — anyplace but the bathroom.
"It was wall-to-wall men in there," DeLong says.
That led to increased tensions and almost-daily fights and chin checks, most of them relegated to the bathroom.
"It was gladiator school in there," former inmate Ronald Paliai said of Durango during his deposition in DeLong's civil case.
"You gotta realize you're in jail, where there's no supervision at all. You got a [detention officer] that walks in there every 30 minutes. He's just getting a paycheck.
"I'm not saying their job is not dangerous, because they have things they have to deal with. [But] just because you made a mistake in life and you're being detained until you have your day in court, regardless of the charge, you're not supposed to be treated like an animal . . . It's living back in the 1800s."
Detention officers were scarce at Durango, often with only two or three on duty at any given time.
That wasn't nearly enough manpower to provide meaningful security for DeLong's D-pod and its 100-plus inmates, much less for the entire jail, more than 2,000 prisoners in September 2004.
DeLong recalls that the then-head of the Woods told him briefly about the jail's unofficial inmate rules when he first got there, just as the modern-day gang leader instructed the young heroin addict years later on the Discovery Channel show.
In September 2004, that Woods leader was Jason Lewis, an honorably discharged U.S. Marine now in prison for armed robbery.
DeLong is a bulky man who has been in a fight or two in his time. But he says he didn't need anyone's advice on how to behave in the jail.
"I laid low 24-7," he says.
DeLong positioned his "boat" where detention officers, if they were around, might see him. He read books or just daydreamed as days passed, killing time until his sentencing on September 21, 2004.
Both inmates and detention officers questioned later in DeLong's civil suit remembered him as low-key in the jail maelstrom.
As he tried to stay invisible, DeLong says, he also kept vigilant. He says he saw three or four assaults in D-pod during his month there and observed one inmate exit the bathroom holding teeth that just had been knocked out.
"I wanted to roll up out of there because it was insanity," he tells New Times. "I told the guards it was a madhouse, and they needed to put me someplace else, anyplace. They said, 'You did the crime; just do the time. Get back where you belong.'"
Which DeLong did, until the night he fatefully stepped into D-pod's wicked bathroom.
About 10:30 p.m., DeLong decided to fill up his water jug to make some Kool-Aid from his personal stash. He told an attorney during a 2007 deposition what happened next:
"I remember getting out of bed and going to the bathroom. I walked in there, and the next thing I know, I was getting tapped on the shoulder in the kind of dark in there and the lights out.
"And I turned to my right to see who it was, and I got hit in the eye. And then, like, four or five other guys jumped in on that, and I was beaten and hit and slammed to the floor, and I didn't know what was going on.
"I was screaming for help and fighting to get out of there before any more damage was done to me. I didn't know it was coming . . . My mouth was busted, my teeth were all knocked loose. I had ribs caved in. My knees were raw, no skin, scratches. Just pretty messed up."
He says he recognized the man, Abel Hinojosa, who smacked him in the eye, an inmate with whom he never had communicated in any way.
"I had a direct view of him," DeLong says. "The others rat-packed me. I didn't see them."
Immediately after he escaped from the bathroom, DeLong says, he ran to an emergency buzzer in the pod, and, "I pressed and pressed, but nobody came."
The "bubble," which is where detention officers often sit, was empty, so DeLong retreated to his cot. He grabbed a towel to hold over his destroyed eye.
The pain, he says, was awful.
"Blood was all over me," DeLong says. "I sat there, started passing out, as white as a ghost. Then I got a second wind and was ready to go back and get the guys that did this to me. They all backed off, apologized to me. I was the wrong guy."
Jason Lewis, head of the Woods, says he learned about the attack on DeLong within moments and immediately walked over to address the Chicanos' boss, his equal inside Durango.
In a deposition, Lewis said the other guy avowed that DeLong's beating was "unsanctioned," which meant Hinojosa and the others had made a serious mistake.
Several inmates said later that it took about a half-hour before detention officers responded, during which time emotions inside the pod reached a fever pitch.
The Woods and Chicanos lined up across from each other, hurling insults and threatening to wreak violence on each other.
"It was about to pop," Jason Lewis later recalled, but somehow it didn't.
Finally, the officers unlocked a door and allowed DeLong to leave.
A SWAT team armed with guns and tear gas entered the pod, locked it down, and soon started their routine of "knuckle checks" — observing inmates for signs of blood or bruising.
DeLong penned a short statement at the request of authorities before they transported him to the Maricopa Medical Center.
"The Hispanics in the pod said they made a mistake," he wrote that night. "I was not the intended victim!"
DeLong recalled in his deposition that one detention officer told him at the time, "That's what you get for not ducking."
Another allegedly said, "'You're just trying to get your name in the New Times like every one of you SOBs.' They were very hateful."
Except, DeLong added, for detention officer Raymond Ferreira.
"He was telling me how his wife wanted him to quit," DeLong says. "He held my hand right into the surgery room when they were taking my eye, prayed over me. He was a really nice fellow."
Ferreira is a retired firefighter and U.S. Army veteran. When lawyers in DeLong's lawsuit deposed him, he already had left the Sheriff's Office and was working for the Arizona Department of Education.
But in September 2004, Ferreira was deployed to the county hospital to guard DeLong after the Durango assault. He said he never had spoken to the inmate before that night.
DeLong was "a real easygoing guy," Ferreira told lawyers, who had spoken openly about the attack in the Durango bathroom.
"The bathrooms are a problem from this regard," the ex-detention officer testified. "They don't have any security cameras."
Ferreira said he prayed with DeLong at the hospital that night:
"I mean, we're human just like they're human. As far as I'm concerned, anyone [who] was at Durango, until he went before a judge and was found guilty, was just an inmate that was there. [DeLong] was the wrong tall white guy. Tragic. And it cost him an eye."
By the way, the inmate who was the torpedo's actual intended target soon left D-pod without getting injured.
At the hospital that night, another MCSO detention officer saw the extent of Alan DeLong's eye injury for the first time.
"The eye bulged," the officer (now a probation officer) said in a deposition. "I fainted. The hospital has security that came in. I guess I was only unconscious for, like, five seconds, they said."
The specialist told DeLong how bad the injury was and that he probably would lose the eye.
"I went into a frenzy just thinking about that," DeLong says.
His longtime girlfriend, Cindy Dubois, and his since-deceased sister didn't find out what had happened until the following day.
"We thought he was going off to prison, and then this," says Dubois, a mother of six grown children who stuck with DeLong throughout the ordeal and subsequent prison term.
A sheriff's investigator interviewed DeLong at the hospital. The inmate was able to identify Abel Hinojosa in a photograph as the man who had clocked him in the bathroom.
The investigator then went to Durango to chat with Hinojosa, who proclaimed innocence.
Hinojosa succeeded in persuading officers to remove him from D-pod because he feared for his safety in the aftermath of the assault.
He didn't say who scared him more, the Woods or his own group, the Chicanos.
County prosecutors later added an assault charge to Hinojosa's criminal-damage case. He pleaded guilty to the assault, but served only about a month more behind bars (less than a year in all) than he would have on the original charge.
"One month for one eye," Alan DeLong says. "Justice."
(Court records show that Hinojosa was sentenced last February to 11 years for a subsequent aggravated assault in Pinal County.)
Doctors removed DeLong's right eye six days after the beating.
Infections hampered his recovery after hospital officials returned him to a county jail in downtown Phoenix for what he describes as a nightmarish few weeks. Remarkably, the officials wanted to ship him back to Durango until he complained mightily.
On October 13, 2004, authorities finally transported DeLong from the county jail to a minimum-security prison, where he quietly served his DUI sentence until his July 2006 release.
He caught a break when his sister successfully appealed to a local Lions Club to donate money for a glass eye — at a cost of about $3,000.
Though he still prefers to wear dark glasses in public, DeLong says that the "new" eye helped him feel a bit better — "on a good day" — about how he looks.
Alan DeLong's reentry into society in 2006 was eased by the positive presence of his girlfriend and by the job that Paddock Pools held for him as promised.
He still works for the firm, in a customer-service capacity. But all is not well.
"I feel ashamed of myself," he said during his civil deposition (a sentiment he repeated to New Times in a recent interview).
"I don't feel like I'm complete anymore. I cry a lot about that, not being able to do the things I used to do. I feel like people are staring at me a lot. Like I used to do to people, and now I know how it feels. It's horrible."
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