Correctional deputy Rico West walked into M5-D—a medium-security pod at Santa Clara County’s Elmwood Correctional Facility—with a cup holding a makeshift lighter fashioned from twisted toilet paper.
“Y’all want to smoke in my dorm?” he hollered, according to some of the inmates who witnessed the commotion. “Who lit the wick? Who lit the wick?!”
Like most of the 65 or so men on lockdown in the two-tiered unit, Aaron Steward peered through his cell window to see what West was doing.
“Thirty-three!” the jail guard shouted at Steward, referencing his cell number. “You wanna smoke in my dorm? Whose is this?”
As Steward recalls, West bounded up the stairs toward his cell, unlocked the door and ordered him to back up. The 25-year-old inmate, jailed on burglary charges, said he complied as his cellmate DiMarco Hal scrambled up to the top bunk against the rear wall.
In a pending excessive force claim against the Sheriff’s Office, the bunkmates say West wanted to fight that night of July 12, 2017, and delivered a bloody beating. For Andrew Johnson, who said he saw the scene unfold from his cell, the incident triggered flashbacks to a summer night two years before, when he heard three jailers batter the dying breath from a mentally ill inmate named Michael Tyree.
Tyree’s death in 2015 prompted a series of reforms at the local jails, including an overhaul of the way officials processed inmate grievances. Two years ago, after a pair of critical audits called the complaint system prone to corruption, Sheriff Laurie Smith installed more than 100 lockboxes so that inmates had a secure place to submit their claims. Hoping to hold West accountable for inflicting a concussion, Steward lodged a grievance in one of those containers the day after his alleged attack. It didn’t seem to have helped much.
Jail observers say Steward’s case sheds light on a glaring conflict of interest that undermines reforms to the grievance system. That is, the official in charge of fielding inmate complaints also goes to bat for their alleged abusers as a union advocate.
When the county Board of Supervisors created a new position to oversee the overhauled grievance system, it named veteran officer Lt. Amy Le to the role. That was in 2016, the same year Le was appointed president of the Correctional Peace Officers’ Association, which represents the county’s jail deputies, and a year before the county formally revised its policy on inmate grievances.
“This is the definition of the fox guarding the henhouse,” Steward’s attorney Sarah Marinho said in an email. Her lawsuit calls Le “incredibly biased.”
No more than four days after Steward filed a grievance against West, Le went on camera to defend the deputy and cast the incident as an example of the dangers posed by inmates. Records obtained by San Jose Inside show that inmate assaults on staff went from 46 in the 2015 calendar year to 32 in 2016. Records for last calendar year weren’t available, but the county reported more than 60 from May of 2016 to May of 2017.
“When the officer tried to apply the handcuffs, he turned around and he fought with the officer, and because the officer was of small stature, this inmate was able to get this officer in a chokehold, and choking him, he's almost out of breath,” Le told ABC7 News in a July 17 newscast. She added: “When an officer gives you a directive to lock down due to an emergency, you need to respond to lock down.”
Sheriff Smith and agency spokesman Sgt. Reggie Cooks declined to comment on the matter because of Steward’s pending litigation. But Le disputed the notion that her roles pose a conflict of interest. Though she coordinates the grievance system, Le said she doesn’t process each individual claim and wouldn’t take the professional risk of trying to cover for an unscrupulous jail employee.
“Since this is a computer database, it is protected and transparent to all involved individuals, inmate and staff,” explained Le, a 28-year veteran custody officer. “The civilian management analysts are responsible to handle daily grievances. My responsibility is to conduct audits to ensure grievances are handled timely, appropriately, and provide early warning by producing reports.”
Le told San Jose Inside that she didn’t review West’s body camera footage and that she wasn’t sure if he was even equipped with a camera as mentioned in Steward’s lawsuit. But she determined that Steward was the aggressor because of conversations she had with West and other staff before her TV interview. She also said that the deputy was on high alert at the time of the incident because he was trying to find out who ignited a wick that could have burned the jail and endangered other inmates.
“Listen, three people got convicted [for Tyree’s murder],” she said. “No one here would be stupid enough to jeopardize their job, which they rely on to make a living, by assaulting an inmate. If you do crazy stuff, you get caught. There’s cameras almost everywhere. There’s also inmates who aren’t afraid to speak out.”
But Marinho said jail officials retaliated against Steward as well as witnesses who corroborated her client’s account. Jail officials referred Steward to the district attorney’s office for charges of assaulting West. Because authorities deemed Steward violent, they relocated him from Elmwood to a higher-security unit in the Main Jail where he has less phone time and no access to rehabilitative programming such as drug treatment. His punitive classification also means he has to wear a red jumpsuit, which sends a message to judges and prosecutors that he’s a threat.
“This is consistent with the sheriff’s office custom and practice of preemptively referring cases to the district attorney’s office after a use-of-force incident to get ahead of any liability and dissuade the prisoners from pursuing their excessive use-of-force claims,” Steward’s lawsuit states.
Retired Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell, who headed a jail reform task force convened in the wake of Tyree’s murder, echoed Marinho’s concerns about Le’s responsibilities seeming at odds.
“The conflict is clear—you don't put the head of the correctional officers union in charge of a system in which inmates make complaints and grievances against correctional officers,” said Cordell, who also served as San Jose’s independent police auditor before retiring three years ago. “Once again, it's akin to the police policing themselves. What incentive does the head of the correctional officers union have to fairly and objectively process complaints against members of the union she leads? Her position as the union head is to look out for the welfare and rights of the officers. She can't do that and at the same time look out for the welfare and rights of the inmates who are complaining about those officers to whom she has pledged allegiance.”
Cordell said the issue underscores the need to implement one of the main recommendations from her blue-ribbon reforms task force: to establish independent civilian oversight of the county’s custody division. An inspector general would have been able to interview witnesses, watch the body camera footage and come to its own conclusion about what happened.
“Instead,” she noted, “what we get is the police policing themselves, which means no accountability whatsoever.”