Jails Panel Slams Sheriff Smith, Calls for New Leadership

Beyond the red steel gate to the 4A pod in Santa Clara County’s Main Jail, a dozen cameras keep watch of 45 locked-up men.

For as long as anyone can remember, jailers and jailed alike have called this notoriously volatile maximum-security unit “The Snake Pits.” So named because of the way inmates would thrust their arms through the bars and wave them around like so many frantic vipers. Sheriff Laurie Smith, flanked by her assistant sheriff Troy Beliveau and spokesman Sgt. James Jensen, walks up to the door’s blast-proof pane to point out where a 30-man brawl erupted earlier this month.

“The more you let them out together,” Smith says, “the more fights you’re going to have,”

And yet, despite the unit’s fractious reputation, the jail recently revised its policy to allow more inmates out of their cells at once, resulting in a March 3 melee. That the brawl played out on cameras a day after their installation and a week after the policy change, jail officials say, is coincidental. The timing of the scrap—right after the sheriff made headlines for buying the cameras with her personal credit card—raised suspicions of a set-up.

“Do you guys believe that I staged this for publicity?” Smith scoffs.

Snake Pit Stills

Surveillance stills of the "Snake Pit" fight.

That prominent members of the public suspect as much shows how badly a series of high-profile scandals, including the fatal beating of a mentally ill inmate, have tarnished the sheriff’s image. This past weekend, a jails commission—formed after three guards were charged with murdering Michael Tyree—asked the county to wrest control of the jails from Smith.

“You have racism and constitutional violations coursing through the system,” says Rick Callender, a commissioner and vice president of the California-Hawaii State Conferences of the NAACP. “I really do want federal oversight of these jails. Heads need to roll.”

Tyree’s Aug. 27 death prompted the county Board of Supervisors to assemble the Blue Ribbon Commission on Improving Custody Operations to investigate the two jails under the sheriff’s purview. The Prison Law Office, a nonprofit watchdog, followed up with a lawsuit accusing county corrections of over-using solitary confinement and failing to provide adequate medical and mental health care for the 3,600 people in its custody.

Sheriff Smith has since faced unprecedented public criticism. An internal probe uncovered a slew of racist text messages exchanged by at least a dozen of her jail deputies, leading to the correctional union's president being placed on paid leave. Shocking accounts of brutality against inmates have also come to light, and consultants exposed glaring failures in the way the jails handle inmate grievances and staff discipline. 

Just this week, the Deputy Sheriffs' Association—which represents not correctional but patrol officers—asked county counsel to investigate the sheriff for misconduct. The union claims Smith leaked info about a personnel investigation and tried to influence LaDoris Cordell, the retired Superior Court judge who leads the jails panel, by saying that demands for a leadership change could hurt her political prospects. If Smith did say as much, it had little effect.

Commissioners wrapped up six months of work Saturday by unanimously approving 121 recommendations that—in addition to stripping the sheriff’s authority over jails—include hiring more correctional workers, creating permanent independent oversight and improving mental and medical health care for inmates.

Leading up to the vote, the group lambasted Smith’s efforts to fix the jails as reactive, a way to save face and brand herself a reformer ahead of her likely re-election fight in 2018. The correctional guards’ union, which has been at odds with the sheriff since she took over the jails in 2010, accused her of excluding input of her custody staff.

Cordell has repeatedly sparred with Smith in the press, labeling her leadership deficient at every level.

“The problems range from, but are not limited to, mismanagement of the Inmate Welfare Fund, a broken grievance [and] complaint process, a flawed classification system, a broken medical and mental health system for inmates, a problematic custody input report process, a fear of retaliation by both correctional officers and inmates, a stunning lack of transparency in the jail operations, and the murder of Michael Tyree,” Cordell wrote in demanding new jail management. “The Board of Supervisors should acknowledge that the operation of the jails under the current leadership has been a failure for the inmates, for the correctional officers, and for the taxpayers.”

Ironically, Smith asked the county to establish the panel that ultimately came out so strongly against her. Commissioners nearly censured the sheriff before settling on a public denouncement that also implicates her corrections chief, John Hirokawa.

Sheriff Laurie Smith

Sheriff Laurie Smith

In the seven months since Tyree’s killing, the sheriff has cited several improvements at the jail. Last week, she introduced a reform plan that in some ways aligns with the commission’s recommendations, including a call for a full-time jail monitor.

Still, Smith has been sharply critical of Cordell, the commission—of which she’s a non-voting member—and the unions that represent her deputies.

Days before the panel’s final meeting, Smith said she had yet to read the final agenda, but bristled at Callender’s idea for federal intervention.

“You know, I don’t think that is the purview of the blue ribbon commission,” Smith says.

During a conversation with San Jose Inside after a tour of the jail last week, the sheriff appeared frustrated when talking about certain commissioners and their continued discussion about the 4A brawl. The timing of the cell block fight was happenstance, Smith says. In fall of 2014, following a series of racially charged fights in that unit, Lt. Timothy Davis updated the schedule to make sure African American and Hispanic inmates took turns out of their cells. Last month, he changed course.

“Recently, we reexamined the 4A program schedule,” he wrote in a Feb. 25 email that became the center of a 45-minute discussion during Saturday’s commission meeting. “Based on feedback from the fourth floor staff, and support from Classification–Intel, Main Jail admin determined the 2014 six-group schedule is obsolete.”

Six days later, Smith bought the surveillance cameras at Costco. The $761-and-some-change went on her personal charge card, ostensibly to cut through government red tape. Exactly a day later, per Jensen, a black and Latino inmate clashed over a gambling debt and set off the whole unit. It took 20 correctional deputies and several cans of pepper spray to break up the fracas.

“Questions need to be asked about why these inmates were let out,” Callender tells San Jose Inside. “Whether the inmates were put together knowingly or negligently, this supports the call for federal oversight of these jails. We’ve got problems of management and leadership, which creates this kind of festering cesspool of activity.” 

In a roundabout way, Smith blames the “Snake Pit” brawl on the class-action lawsuit demanding less solitary confinement and more time out of cells. 

“But please,” she says. “Do not think for a moment that someone staged the fight for the media. That is ludicrous.” 

Attempts to improve jail conditions have been met with resistance or suspicion, Smith contends. While commending “the vast majority” of deputies for being dedicated public servants, she called their unions obstructionist. She used an analogy that San Jose Inside's own reporters could be fired on a moment’s notice but she has to deal with “civil service protections.”

When the sheriff installed new locked boxes for inmate complaints, the jail guard union sent a letter demanding to "meet and confer" over the matter. When she set a new schedule in the Main Jail’s eighth-floor mental health ward, she says, the union sent another such letter.

“Change in any industry, especially culture change, really takes time,” Smith says. “But it also takes people not working against you.”

The frustration is mutual. Union officials say they want to see those changes, but take issue with the way they’re handed down.

“The problem is that the sheriff is being obstructionist and slowing progress by making unilateral decisions that exclude us,” says Julio Alvarez, who leads the correctional guards union. “That won’t work. We are the men and women who are put in harm’s way each day. If the sheriff worked with us—on installing cameras, on not cutting first-line officers out of the grievance process, on not eliminating shift briefings, on replacing deficient online training with hands-on training, on adding correctional officer positions where they’re critically needed—then we would make good progress toward making our jails safe for everyone.”

The correctional union’s representative on the jails commission, however, wants the sheriff to keep her post to enact promised reforms. Sgt. Amy Le on Saturday defended Smith, who had to make cuts in the wake of an economic downturn. Fellow commissioners Pablo Gaxiola, a former inmate, and Judge Stephen Manley, who presides over the local mental health court, agreed with Le.

Ousting the sheriff wouldn’t be the most sensible approach because she’s an elected official, Supervisor Cindy Chavez, Smith's political ally, remarked during the meeting. Regardless, Smith says, many reforms are well underway. Inmates have more soap, underwear changes and out-of-cell time. More psychiatrists and psychologists have been placed in both jails. Riot guns will no longer be used on mentally ill inmates to force them from their cells. And guards now hold squad meetings before each shift to go over training, policy and updates about inmates.

“Yeah, they’re calling for a change of leadership,” Smith says. “They’re saying that this is the worst jail system in the world. I think people forget that this was a murder by some deputies in this facility and that we had them arrested within a week. So people forget why all this started. Yes, there’s a lot of scrutiny in the jail, and we welcome that scrutiny. I want to be looked at. I want to look at things and look at how we can prevent this in the future.”

In a letter to Cordell and the commission, Tyree’s sister, Shannon Tyree, thanked them for their work. 

“Michael would understand the kind of courage shown by public officials who have stood up and said, ‘We have a problem and we’re going to fix it,’” she wrote. “He would be honored by the real work that is being done in his name by this commission to make not just his death, but also his life, leave a lasting change.”

Reforms in this county, she added, will hopefully reverberate in jails throughout the country.

“It wouldn’t be the first time that California has started change that has led the nation,” she concluded. “Californians are very good at that.”

This story has been updated.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

12 Comments

  1. The argument is either that the sheriff knew that certain inmates should not be given program time together and she did so without consideration of this in her new policy, or…

    Well there is no other or. The sheriff knew of potential conflict, had downclassed and moved one of those conflicts onto 4A the same week all this was going according to my sources, (do you talk to anyone other than the sheriff, Jennifer? I know you used to). Honestly, that is even more curious.

    You know what I find interesting is that the Commission was never given the auditor’s analysis of the jail consolidation plan commissioned by the Board of Supervisors. It’s enlightening as to the risks ignored by the sheriff and the BoS regarding actions taken in corrections over the past 6 years.

    https://caseythomas.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/the-bos-and-sheriffs-ticking-time-bomb/

    The unions demanded to “meet and confer” over the complaint boxes because the policies and practices were not clearly explained, or even fully distributed among staff. A policy is useless if you fail to fully implement it, and that it functions in practice — which hers did not as pointed out by the commission investigator Mr. Zisser. She’s shown she still hasn’t learned how to do her job.

    More tired defense by the media of a sheriff despite building evidence she willfully endangered everyone in the jails to make political points.

  2. Might I also point out in regards to this, “The correctional guards’ union, which has been at odds with the sheriff since she took over the jails in 2010…” Not entirely true.

    The CPOA (the correctional guards’ union) endorsed the sheriff during the 2010 election based on promises she made to improve the jails and enhance their roles in law enforcement. Just a minor sticking point that when the CPOA thought the sheriff was telling the truth, they supported her wholeheartedly. She’s been kicking them ever since. The DSA also gave her an endorsement begrudgingly in 2010, having wanted to publicize a “no endorsement” that year do to her failing to keep any promises or commitments from the prior election and growing problems in here management ranks. They gave her the endorsement based on promises to work with them on improvements and change the way the administration was working with them. They also took into consideration her asking for their support on bringing the corrections and enforcement back together and unifying the organizations would take teamwork that she was willing to commit too.

    Since then there have been no improvements, at least not until the law suits started rolling in and the inmates started dying and the deputies were ending up in the hospital with serious injuries. Despite all the warnings about the problems her decisions would cause — from the above posted analysis, to the deputies themselves — she thought she knew better.

    Here we are now, right back in the 1980’s… you know, the timeframe where she was promoted from sergeant all the way up to assistant sheriff for still unverified reasons, giving her all the experience she needed to take the jails right back down the drain they spent years pulling the jails out of.

  3. “[The sheriff] used an analogy that San Jose Inside’s own reporters could be fired on a moment’s notice but she has to deal with “civil service protections.” Civil service protections exist for several reasons. Because law enforcement is generally a job that generates many false complaints and accusations, those that are made must be investigated fairly.

    Because the job of law enforcement of requires demanding and difficult situations, at times with only a moments notice, it does take time to investigate if a deputy acted correctly based what they reasonably believed what was happening. If it’s determined they did not, one then has to determine things like training, knowledge, and intent in their actions in order to determine disciplinary actions. And yes reporters can be fired at will, but I’m sure if Jennifer was accused of filing false articles with her editor she would have the basic expectation that her employer would investigate if her statements were made with reasonable evidence that would lead her to believe them to be true before they fired her. Would I be wrong in believing that SJI reporters have that expectation? That they may be temporarily suspended from releasing new work while that investigation happens, but you do expect to happen, right? Otherwise it’s a matter of destroying your entire professional reputation and future if they failed to give you at least that courtesy.

    Civil service protections also exist so political entities, like the sheriff, can’t go around using active investigations, or founded, or use cases against specific individuals to attempt to reestablish political status with the public or by attempting to influence an official commission by characterizing facts coming out about the political entities poor performance. I agree, there should be a lot more light shed on investigations, it would help to maintain the integrity of investigations — another problem in the sheriff’s office. No matter how much light is shed, the above protections should always stand.

  4. Jennifer, I’ve checked with someone on the real “inside” at the sheriff’s department and they have confirmed the “Snake Pits” is located in the old jail not the 4th floor. Well at least Sgt. Jensen is consistent, and consistent LIAR. Although their lack knowledge about their own jails should firm up everyone’s suspicions, Smith really has no clue about what’s going on at her department.
    As for the content of the article it’s good to see your boss is loyal to his friend Smith, running a fluff story no respectable media outlet would touch. If Smith really wanted to bolster her AmEx Rewards program she should have purchased two camera systems and placed them in the old jail, including the “Snake Pits”, where the majority of the fights occur. That is why everyone associated with the sheriff’ department doesn’t believe Smith didn’t have some intelligence about the fight before hand.
    I really hope your boss, Smith’s good friend, will do the right thing and tell Smith to retire before he and his company loses more credibility as he tries to paint her as the “Great Reformer.” Smith was asleep at the switch as the train rushed passed her allowing deaths, escapes and poor investigations to occur. All the VIP days at the department range on the tax payers dime won’t save her now. Rumor of a recall effort are swirling around and for the first time and people other than her her employees are seeing how terrible Smith really is! It should be plain to see that she is on a power trip and only cares about doing one thing, staying in office. News flash, the voters aren’t going to allow that to happen again. RECALL SMITH NOW!

  5. When you continue to hire one employee after another with a GED and an I.Q. of 90-95, eventually you will, over a thirty year period, end up with a Department of losers leading losers and criminal conduct resulting from a complete lack of personal integrity. You can’t clean it up without a Civilian Review Board with Sharks teeth and a DA who isn’t a criminal protector himself.

    Look around taxpayers, your on your own. These people started getting big pay checks to do a demanding job, then one two week period they didn’t feel good, didn’t use sick leave and didn’t do a lick of work and WOW they found the same pay check in their folder and it’s been that way with your County Politicians and workers. Then came the County Credit cards, County vehicles, County gas cards, County cell phones (sometimes for the whole family) and a 10 am to noon and 2pm to 3:30pm work day with Friday being a do nothing day each week. Free non earned overtime and compensatory time off at 1 1/2 hours per hour that saves your sick leave and vacation time for a 6 figure pay out at retirement.

    I sit on my mountain top over looking ZUG LAKE and play my fiddle as you all dive into the ground and I laugh because you people won’t get together and throw the bums out!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. LaDoris Cordell has carved quite a groove in the valley. She laid the groundwork leading to the recall of an African American city council member. She laid the groundwork for a past president of SJSU to resign and take up safer work back home in Afghanistan. And now she has laid the groundwork for a recall or defeat of a sitting sheriff. That’s quite a skill set, and more than a few observers predicted that the commission would be converted to political ends. I wonder what made the sheriff think retired judge LaDoris Cordell would manage such a commission to the purpose for which the board of supervisors created it? Well, the tumbril rumbles through the streets of San Jose again. Who will be next?

    • Are you saying the BRC did not do what it was appointed to do? It was supposed to determine what the problems were, why they were problems and if there was an accountable element. It appears they did their job better than expected thanks to the sheriff’s inability to keep her head down and her mouth shut and take the criticism that she deserved. She went out of her way to act in exactly the manner so many have said is common for her. She is so confident in the widespread corruption that is Santa Clara County she was wholly unprepared to be unable to sway Cordell.

      If you compare the needs assessment to Mr. Zisser’s review to the Needs Assessment done in 2007, the degradation under Sheriff Smith is downright disgusting and I wish that the commission had pointed out the disparity between the jails being run by the DoC and those being run by the jails — because they’re now two very different places.

      Now we are being treated to this circus parade the sheriff has put together trying to get us to ignore how she approached the Judge and tried to influence the outcome of the commission. Trying to pretend she got the jails in this condition when there are plenty of hard proof items from the needs assessments to accreditations which no longer come in.

      I don’t always agree with LaDoris Cordell, she is her own divisive character at times, but at least she will stand and make her argument, right or wrong. The sheriff, rather than providing answers and transparency is busy flying the helicopter she named after herself over the county releasing decoy flares.

    • Plus, it’s very hard to miss that a number of hard core sheriff supporters were loaded onto that commission and they have reversed course and agreed she needs to be removed from corrections. It’s telling when you skew the odds in your favor and it still goes against you.

  7. Module 4A is not called the Snake Pits and doesn’t not have bars. It has wooden doors…

    The Snake Pits is located at Main Jail South and does not house maximum security inmates.

    Someone didn’t do their research.

  8. Based on the photo that accompanies this story, it seems to me more likely that the cause of the inmate fight was a rude boy cutting to the front of the manicure line.

  9. The fights have been “staged” somewhat. They knowingly put nortenos & black inmates together knowing they will have conflict & then being “shocked” at yet another fight. This is getting embarrassing and dangerous. Most of these inmates will come back into society but the treatment they get while in jail makes them cold & uncaring. Remember…most inmates in jail have NOT BEEN CONVICTED of any crime…they are still waiting for their day in court. And those who have been convicted will come back out with NO mental health treatment, with infectious diseases (hepatitis, herpes, etc.), and with NO educational programming. THIS is the failure of our jails. Recall Smith NOW.