Inmates frequently feel they don't have recourse when abused

OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) – Following the death of Santa Clara County inmate Michael Tyree, KTVU received several emails from people claiming they witnessed abuse or were victims of abuse at the hands of officers in Bay Area county jails.

Civil rights attorney John Burris has said many times inmates don’t have confidence in the system if they’re victims of abuse, so they keep their mouth shut.

“There could be repercussions because you are still in custody and you make a complaint against a particular officer, well they could make life miserable for you in very subtle ways or hard ways,” Burris said.

KTVU called Bay Area county jails and found out they all have a similar process for an inmate reporting a complaint. The inmate or loved one can file a grievance form, talk to a sergeant, or send a letter to the sheriff’s office.

The complaint is then sent to a division in the sheriff’s office for investigation, like internal affairs. In short, the sheriff’s offices investigate themselves.

Burris said because of this, inmates must prove they are victims of misconduct.

“Unless you have photographs of your injuries or you have medical records, it’s very difficult to make a claim against an officer,” he said. “The only thing that mitigates that is that there are a lot more video cameras in jails.”

In light of the arrest of three Santa Clara County correctional officers for the death of Michael Tyree, KTVU reached out the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office in regards to inmates filing complaints.

Sgt. James Jensen said inmates or loved ones have resources and should have faith in the system.

“Our sheriff's deputies have the highest integrity and as you can see in this case, we were transparent, we acted swiftly and we brought people to justice,” Jensen said.

Burris said despite the process for inmates filing a complaint, many feel like they won’t get an objective investigation. An alternative option is to hire a private attorney.

“More often than not, the individual does not get the relief they want,” he added.

KTVU has filed public records requests with Bay Area county jails to find out how many inmate complaints have been filed within the past year, along with the results of those investigations and will report on them once they are received.

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