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By Charles Lam
Photo by Jack GouldAfter days of rumors, jail officials now admit Sheriff's deputies beat an inmate so severely last week that he required medical treatment.
But what's possibly just as newsworthy is that officials at Theo Lacy Branch Jail promptly agreed to a journalist's request to tour the facility within three days of the Oct. 27 beating—and even allowed him to interview the injured inmate, who was confined to his cell for assaulting a deputy.
Unlike the state prison system, where reporters are actually banned from having any direct contact with prisoners, it's not impossible for reporters to interview county jail inmates. But the process can take days, which is problematic if you're trying to interview an inmate who was allegedly beaten up. By the time your visit is approved, memories can fade and injuries can heal.
I first heard about the incident from a source who often receives telephone calls from inmates at Theo Lacy, the county's largest and highest-security jail. The source told me she had received about 15 telephone calls from inmates who alleged they had seen a deputy beat Rene Alfaro, a 22-year-old inmate. Alfaro has been in Theo Lacy since his March 6 arrest on attempted murder and assault (with a semi-automatic rifle) charges. According to my source, Alfaro was beaten because he moved too slowly while being transferred from one cell to another.
"They beat him to a pulp," the source charged. "First one deputy beat up and then handcuffed him, then two other deputies joined in and kept beating him. Then they asked how he felt. And when he answered, they beat him some more. This happens all the time."
Later, I received a telephone call from an inmate who said he and about a dozen other prisoners witnessed the incident.
"What happened was [Alfaro] apparently got in a fight at court, so when he came back, the deputies told him that they were going to put him in [solitary confinement]," he said. The inmate said Alfaro bristled when the two deputies ordered him to hurry up. "[Alfaro] said, 'I am hurrying, so don't say I'm not doing it.' The deputy told him, 'Fuck you,' and so he told him, 'Fuck you' back," he said.
At that point, the inmate claimed, the deputy pepper-sprayed Alfaro's eyes, pushed him to the ground and punched him repeatedly in the face. "They beat him up for a while, and then another deputy came in and socked him a couple of times in the body and then once in the face, and they handcuffed him," he said. "After that, they had their knees on his neck, and you could hear the guy say, 'Hey, I can't breathe,' and [a deputy] said, 'I don't give a shit.' Then one of the deputies said, 'How do you feel?' And he didn't say anything, so he punched him in the face and said, 'How do you feel now?'"
According to the inmate, a third deputy punched Alfaro in the abdomen and kidneys as they brought him down the stairs from his upper-level cell. "There was a big pool of blood, and he had a broken nose and a hole in his face because they hit him with the pepper spray can. After they left, some deputies came in and took a couple of pictures of the blood, but they didn't talk to anybody else within the sector—and everybody in the top tier witnessed it, and some in the bottom tier witnessed them hit [Alfaro] at the bottom of the stairs."
After hearing my source's story, I drove to Theo Lacy and said I wanted to interview Alfaro and the witness. I knew I would be told I couldn't see Alfaro—that much is routine—but in my job, you never act on your assumptions. The deputy working the desk in the jail's lobby told me Alfaro wouldn't be available for an interview because he was in disciplinary isolation. When I asked for an interview with the witness, the deputy told me to come back on Friday.
Meantime, I called John Fleischmann, a spokesperson for the Sheriff's Department, and asked him about Alfaro. He claimed the inmate had attacked a deputy who, Fleischmann said, suffered a broken wrist. Fleischmann said Alfaro was being charged with assaulting the deputy and, since he had been placed in disciplinary isolation, would not—surprise—be available for an interview.
But on Oct. 31, Fleischmann honored my request to tour Theo Lacy. And then, as it turned out, I was given virtually limitless access to the jail and its inmates, including Alfaro himself.
First, I met with Captain Brian Wilkerson, a division commander who supervises the jail's 300 deputies. Wilkerson suggested my unprecedented access—the corrections equivalent of a backstage pass—was the result of some kindness our paper had shown the Sheriff's Department.
At first, Wilkerson told me he couldn't discuss the Oct. 27 "altercation." But then he discussed it anyway. He said Alfaro had attacked a deputy as he was being moved from one cell to another. Alfaro "went [into his cell] to get his stuff, but he didn't come out," Wilkerson said. "They went in to get him, and he started punching a deputy. They tried to pepper spray him, and the deputy injured his hand. Another deputy injured his knee and back. I think the inmate was injured, too."