Bagels and Locks

Television reporters called in live broadcasts from the Durango Jail complex last Wednesday night when it looked as though a second riot at Sheriff Joe Arpaio's famous Tent City jail had started.

It was the first evening inmates were in the jail since the initial riot on Sunday, November 17. When hundreds of sheriff's deputies and posse men were called in November 20, reporters wondered if a new riot was under way.

No, the Sheriff's Office assured them, it was just a fight between two inmates. The extra officers were just a precaution.

But one deputy tells New Times there was more to the second disturbance.
When Arpaio put the inmates back into the tents, the deputy says, "The guys who participated in the first riots were kicking the shit out of the nonparticipants." He explains that the inmates who had incited the November 17 rioting consider those who had stayed on the sidelines potential threats as the Sheriff's Office conducts an investigation of the disturbance.

The deputy says sheriff's investigators are poring over videotapes of the riot, hoping to identify inmates who can be singled out as instigators.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the riots, questions remain about what caused them in the first place, and whether they are likely to be repeated. Two former Sheriff's Office employees, a former inmate and a defense attorney tell New Times that abuse of prisoners is rampant, and is rarely discouraged by the Sheriff's Office.

The deputy expressed relief that there hadn't been loss of life in the November 17 incident. "I got nervous when I saw how many posse members there were that night," he says. "It looked like a potential Kent State to me."

There's little question in the Sheriff's Office, the deputy says, that more riots will occur. He cites the lack of detention officers at Tent City--only two to four are assigned to watch more than 600 men--and the unsegregated nature of the jail, where no distinction is made between inmates with long criminal records and those without.

"In the tents, everyone's commingled. And there's some very bad boys out there. Tent City is really run by four gangs, you know. One white gang, two Hispanic gangs and a black gang. In reality, it's the gangs that keep the tents in shape."

If the lack of guards in Tent City contributed to the disturbance, it won't be the first time. On June 6, New Times reported the story of Jeremy Flanders, who was beaten into a coma by other inmates ("Tent City Beating Is Nearly Fatal"). According to witnesses, Flanders was pulled sleeping from his bunk and attacked by seven inmates, one of whom wielded a metal tent stake. (In videotape of the November 17 riot, inmates could be seen brandishing tent stakes and other objects.)

The few guards on duty in Tent City were unaware that Flanders had been attacked until another inmate dragged him to the officer's dayroom. Flanders was released in September, but he is still suffering effects of the beating, according to his mother, Judy.

Several different causes for the November 17 riot have been advanced by the Sheriff's Office, but Arpaio has acknowledged that the inmates are sticking by the story of a detention officer applying pepper spray to the face of an inmate who had used a port-a-john during "lockdown."

A detention officer who talked to New Times says that account has the ring of truth. The officer was dismissed recently at the end of her probationary period. She was hired in July.

"If they sprayed them with pepper spray when that guy was in the bathroom--I don't doubt it at all. You have a lot of people who go in there [as detention officers] that are unqualified and don't give a damn," says Mary Durrer, who until last week was a detention officer at Madison Street Jail.

Durrer says she resisted a culture that encouraged the inhumane treatment of prisoners. "I don't swear at [the inmates], I don't treat them like dirt," she says. "And you know what, there's a lot of officers over there that do. . . . They'll call you a spic, a nigger, say 'fuck you,' 'fuck this.'

"I went to [my sergeant] and I told him I wasn't taught this in the academy. I was taught that we were here for care, custody and control. . . . We don't know if those guys are guilty or innocent. That's what I was taught.

"These [inmates] are the dredges of the Earth. . . . But you still have to treat them decently. You can't go in there and just think you can beat the shit out of people."

Durrer says her duties confined her to a small area of the jail--but she says she was aware that physical abuse was occurring elsewhere in the jail. "They bragged about it, saying, 'Let's go kick the shit out of somebody.'

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega