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.'
"It's horrible. It's just horrible . . . I never had a problem with [the inmates]," Durrer says, explaining that it was her fellow officers that gave her the most trouble. When one of her colleagues called her a "fucking bitch" in front of inmates, one of the prisoners spoke up and said: "Don't you dare talk that way to her," Durrer claims.
"Now isn't it sad that the inmates would protect me?"
She says she approached a female sergeant about the incident and was told: "'You can't trust your other officers. They will stab you in the back quicker than the other inmates.' Pretty sad, isn't it?" Durrer says.
The afternoon of the Tent City riot, Durrer says four detention officers came running into an office in her area of Madison Street Jail. "Man, we're going to kick some ass tonight. We're going to beat the shit out of some inmates," the men were saying, according to Durrer.
"I told my partner . . . I don't want them coming in here and disrupting these men. I don't want these inmates going crazy because of these four idiots. You tell them not to come in here, and when I get in there, you close the slider so the inmates don't have to hear them."
The inmates were curious about what was happening, but Durrer told them to calm down so no one would come in and beat them.
"There are so many officers who are idiots, and they lie," Durrer says, claiming that Arpaio is unaware of most of what happens in his jails and the extent of detention-officer malfeasance.
"They cover it up. That's why I was fired. I went to my sergeant and told him how this white officer had called the other one a nigger. And he didn't believe me. I told him everything that happened and he didn't believe me. I told him the truth and he didn't want to hear it because they were his buddies."
Durrer also claims that she suffered sexual harassment at the hands of her fellow officers, who made inappropriate and belittling suggestions to her on the job.
Sheriff's Office spokesman Detective Lew Sorci says Durrer was released while under her initial, probationary hiring period because her "performance was not meeting performance standards." Sorci acknowledges that Durrer and her husband raised questions of inappropriate behavior by her co-workers, and were informed how they could register her complaints and appeal her dismissal.
Meanwhile, Durrer tells New Times that for a week prior to the November 17 riot, detention officers were prepared for a disturbance they expected to occur.
"Everybody said that it was coming," Durrer says. "And there's supposed to be one at Madison coming."
She's asked who had told her this.
"Other officers," she replies.
How do they know?
An investigation by the federal Department of Justice found evidence that inmates in Arpaio's jails were being physically abused and were being denied necessary medical care. U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano has announced that the recent riots will be included in that ongoing investigation.
Meanwhile, people who have spent time in Arpaio's jails tell New Times that conditions are generally Third World.
Fred Vazquez was mentioned in a New Times story about nonwhites who were beginning to join the patriot movement ("Affirmative Reactionaries," March 28). Recently, when Vazquez mouthed off to a judge who wanted to know when he was going to pay for an outstanding speeding ticket, Vazquez was ordered to spend 16 days in Tent City.
During his short stay, Vazquez was put to work in Tent City's kitchen. He called New Times after he was sprung to say that Sheriff Joe has a vermin problem.
"We'd serve the inmates pancakes that mice had chewed. Bread that mice had been in. The mice had chewed holes in the bread. Their feces were all over it. Cockroaches were baked into the bread. We tried to throw away what he could, but a lot of it was still getting out to the inmates."
Vazquez says cockroaches would run in and out of hollow serving trays while the food was being put on them.
"The other day we were trying to put bagels onto plates, and it's bad enough that we have to keep roaches off of the outside, but there's mice trying to get into the bag of bagels from the bottom."
And as for what was on the menu: "For dinner you'd get a side order of salsa, a boiled potato and another side order of ground sardines in tomato sauce and two pieces of bread. That was on Saturday. On Friday, the day before, we had salsa, the boiled potato sitting on some kind of gray gravy, and two pieces of bread."
And lunch? "One slice of cheese, one cold-cut slice--and sometimes it's not even a whole slice--a piece of bread and maybe some raisins."
Other inmates have written to New Times telling of inadequate portions and rancid food. One correspondent complained that three times in one week dinner had consisted of a slice of bread covered in barbecue sauce.
Vazquez says the inmates working in the kitchen received much better food than what they served to the general population. "We ate this stuff every day--burritos, fried chicken, onion rings, ice cream," Vazquez says. "But that isn't what the staff put out for the inmates. A jail employee made sure the good food stayed in the kitchen and was thrown out if we didn't eat it."
Vazquez asked the employee why some of the better food wasn't given out to inmates who weren't fortunate enough to work in the kitchen. Vazquez says Arpaio's employee replied: "What, do you have a boyfriend out there? Fuck them. They don't get shit."
Sheriff's Office spokesman Detective Sorci acknowledges that county health inspections have turned up violations in the jail kitchens, but he points out that "the best restaurants have incidents." He says the jails consistently rank in the top 20 percent of health-department rankings.
Other critics say that the inmates' daily bread isn't the only thing wrong with the jail system.
A clergyman who runs a volunteer jail ministry tells New Times that a fellow pastor was suspended by Arpaio's jailers for a year recently because he dared to complain.
The clergyman, who asked not to be identified because it would mean being thrown out of the jails, says the pastor had noticed that nurses refused to give prescribed medicines to inmates who attended church services.
When the pastor confronted a nurse about it, he was told that since medicines were delivered at the same time the church services were scheduled, inmates had to choose between the two.
The pastor objected to that policy, but was told by the nurse, "I'm the one who decides who gets their medicine, not you."
The pastor complained to jail officials, but he was subsequently told he couldn't perform services for the next year.
"Things are getting weirder out there," says Mike Scanlon, a criminal defense attorney who often works with clients assigned to Arpaio's jail system.
As an example, Scanlon points out that recently a client of his, a musician, had to spend 24 hours in jail on a drunken-driving charge. Yet despite his brief "sentence," the musician was told he had to cut his long hair.
"It was a haircut or lockdown. It's stupid," Scanlon says.
The attorney says jailers seem to have taken Arpaio's notion of jail as punishment too literally, to the point of ignoring judges' orders for lighter treatment.
Scanlon mentions the case of Grady Smith as an example. A World War II veteran, Smith retired from the Navy with the rank of lieutenant commander and then flew for commercial airlines. Now 74, he was recently convicted for his second drunken-driving offense in five years.
The Sheriff's Office confirms that Smith was ordered to serve a 30-day sentence on a two-for-one basis (each day would count as two, which would reduce his sentence to 15 days).
Smith's wife, Mary, says that the judge's order also made reference to Smith's infirm condition and recommended that Smith serve his 15 days in a medical ward. Smith suffers from water on the brain, which produces disorientation; Smith cannot perform most basic tasks and needs assistance just going to the bathroom.
Jailers ignored the judge's recommendations. Rather than an infirmary, Detective Sorci says Smith was assigned to Tent City. And Mary Smith says when her husband refused to work, his two-for-one order was ignored. Smith served 29 days in three different jails.
"He's a sick man! He can't work if he's sick," she says. "They didn't do anything that that paper told them to do. They put him in with eight people. He didn't get the medication he was supposed to get. The second time I saw him in Durango, he looked so bad, I couldn't believe it. He looked so horrible. He looked like a bum on the streets. I called the Sheriff's Office and told him he's in horrible shape."
Mary says her husband finally received medical care in the final few days of his incarceration, but only after she had complained repeatedly. When she told a jail employee that Grady required care, she was told, "'Well, I wish we would have known that.'
"And I asked [the jail employee], 'Why wouldn't you know it when he had a paper in his hand when he walked in there signed by a judge that he's supposed to be in the medical ward?'
"It's just a mess," Mary Smith says, and since her husband was released last week, he's done little more than sleep. "He said it was horrible. He told me a little bit about it. He said it was the worst place you could ever be in your life. I know one thing--when I saw him, he was not himself."
In the wake of the riot, Arpaio and his detention officers have complained about a lack of funding--which neatly pushes blame for the disturbance onto the county Board of Supervisors.
But one of Arpaio's former deputy chiefs says that blame belongs squarely on the sheriff's four-star shoulders.
"Arpaio doesn't want to put more money in the jails, because he knows that's what gets him national press," says Bill Miller, who retired from the Sheriff's Office in 1994. "The sheriff almost lost some officers the other night, but he hasn't learned anything.
"The detention officers have nothing they can use to discipline these people. They take the heat while Arpaio gets the national exposure. Is that taking care of your people?
"This will happen again."
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