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."
Wilkerson said inmates often attack deputies inside the jail as a way to "score points" with other inmates.
"The inmates dictate what happens," he said. "Every day, we have incidents. I spend a lot of my time reading reports on assaults. We find weapons every day—toothbrushes, razors, anything that can be made into a knife or shank.
"Unfortunately, what the general public usually hears about is this innocent inmate got beaten by some evil cop," Wilkerson added. "We take a lot of heat on excessive force. We have lawyers that make a living suing us. . . . Occasionally, a guy gets carried away, but we handle it—he'll be disciplined or fired. In reality, they are doing a phenomenal job. This guy Alfaro knew he had to fight [to score points] . . . but he knows that if he attacks a deputy, he's not going to get hurt real bad because we're not going to knock him unconscious. He would have never done that to another inmate."
Accompanied by Sergeant Tony Romero, I spent the next two hours touring Theo Lacy. First, I glimpsed medium-security inmates lounging inside their jail cells. Elsewhere, minimum-security inmates ate lunch in the kitchen or stretched their legs on bunk beds inside their barracks. Inside another wing—which the deputies call "modules" —were maximum-security inmates, most of whom stared blankly through their windows, flexing their muscles.
Walking from module to module through grassy open-space courtyards that dot the sprawling jail, I encountered lines of inmates on their way to and from chow. For my protection, as we passed, the deputies ordered the inmates to stop, turn and face the wall. Without a murmur, they complied. As soon as we passed, the deputies ordered the inmates to continue walking.
Back inside the jail, I overheard a few deputies barking commands at inmates, but for the most part, the deputies seemed low-key and professional. Contrary to my expectations, Theo Lacy was serenely quiet and strikingly devoid of conflict.
Amazingly, my tour included one-on-one interviews with inmates confined in the jail's disciplinary-isolation cells. I spoke with nearly a dozen prisoners through the tiny window in each door. Inmates in solitary are allowed to read one book per week and can write and receive one letter per day. They are also allowed one shower every two days—a right they seemed to be aware of. (One inmate asked the deputy guiding me when he'd be getting his shower. "It's comin' right up," the deputy replied.)
Twenty-six-year-old Nathan Venegas said he had been in solitary for two days after being accused of assaulting another inmate and that he expected to spend the next eight days in the cell. Jesus Salinas, 19, told me he had spent the past five days in the cell for fighting with another inmate, but he didn't know how many days he had left on his sentence. Another inmate with a black eye and six stitches in his temple said he had been accused of fighting with an inmate, but he claimed his injury occured when a deputy slammed his face to the concrete floor.
Ruben Cruz, 22, said that he had been put in a dayroom with "green lighters," prison slang for inmates who have been targeted by gang members for retribution ranging from a beating to execution. "I walked in and started fighting them," Cruz cheerfully told me. "They're green lighted, so you just have to fight them. I've been here eight days."
And then Cruz paused and asked hopefully, "You gonna write a story about this?"
Toward the end of my tour, I asked two deputies if they knew about a colleague who had recently broken his wrist in an altercation with an inmate named Alfaro.
"He didn't break his wrist," one of the deputies answered. "He broke the knuckles in his right hand."
I asked him how often deputies are injured inside Theo Lacy.
"Not that often," he said. "In fact, this incident is the only one this year I can think of."
Another deputy standing nearby said he went to the hospital six months earlier after hurting his back during a scuffle with several inmates who had barricaded themselves in a module with broken trays that they brandished in the air.
The last inmate I interviewed was Alfaro, who was being held in isolation in a different part of the jail. After deputies ordered him to put on his clothes and walk to the lobby of his module, Alfaro approached. Barely five-and-a-half-feet tall, he seemed to shiver with fear. The entire right side of his face was purple, the eye swollen shut, revealing only a blood-red slit. His nose looked broken—misshapen, lumpy, seemingly held together with a strip of medical tape. His lips bulged out and appeared as if they had been stitched.
I asked Alfaro why he was in isolation.
"I took a swing at one of the deputies," he said. "That's it."
I asked Alfaro why he attacked the deputy.
"It's in the report," he said. He seemed to glance nervously at the two deputies standing on either side of me.
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I asked Alfaro what happened to his face.
"That's in the report, too," he said, his good eye sweeping back and forth uneasily.
I asked Alfaro if a deputy had injured him.
"Hey," Alfaro said meekly, ignoring my question and looking at one of the deputies. "Can I just go back to my cell now?"