by Sam Moore
Following a spike in allegations of abuse at the hands of sheriff deputies in San Francisco county jails, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Government Audit and Oversight Committee held a hearing during its meeting on Thursday to examine how these allegations are investigated, and why investigations are conducted within the Sheriff’s Department rather than through an independent oversight body.
The hearing was called for last month by Supervisor Shamann Walton, after the late Public Defender Jeff Adachi had filed a formal complaint to Sheriff Vicki Hennessy regarding the allegations presented to his office. These included physical abuse at County Jail #5 in San Bruno and inappropriate strip searches of female inmates at County Jail #2 on Seventh Street.
The hearing also followed the dismissal of charges related to a 2015 incident in which deputies forced inmates to fight in violent gladiator-style matches for their entertainment. The charges were dropped in February after the District Attorney’s Office reported that Sheriff’s Department investigators destroyed a hard drive containing evidence by smashing it with a hammer.
“The Sheriff’s Department has no oversight that ensures that these investigations are conducted in an unbiased and proper manner,” said Walton at the hearing. “The Police Department is subject to accountability with commission. Why is the Sheriff’s Department any different?”
According to Paul Henderson, the director of the Department of Police Accountability, there has been a 61 percent spike in complaints filed by incarcerated people in the last 18 months. Several people described instances of abuse within San Francisco prisons during the hearing’s public comment portion.
“(A client) was severely beaten in his cell,” said Christine Lee, a law fellow at the Public Defender’s Office, “so much so that he had to request to go to the emergency wing to receive medical assistance. He was chained and shackled to a bed, and a taser was placed to his head.
“The client related to me that he was unable to be candid with the authorities and the people who were medically examining him, because he felt threatened by the fact that the taser was pointed directly at his head during the entire examination. After the examination he was taken to a multi-purpose room, where he was severely beaten.”
Dana Drusinsky, a deputy public defender, described “shake-downs” that occur at Jail #5 in San Bruno, in which deputies storm cells in military-style gear and make inmates face the wall while they “tear cells up” in search of contraband.
“If any inmates were slow to face the wall,” she said, “or turned their heads to see what was going on, we received complaints that their pants were taken off, that they were beaten, locked up, and forced to crawl under a bunk or be tasered.”
Several people, including Henderson, mentioned targeted abuse inflicted onto transgender and gender non-conforming inmates, especially trans women of color. Fatima Avellan, a social worker from the Public Defender’s Office, spoke of one client of hers, a trans woman who had been held inside a men’s prison for over a month.
“She felt violated, humiliated, hopeless and ignored,” Avellan said. “This client greatly feared for her safety due to the abuse and retaliation she experienced by deputies and harassment she endured from other incarcerated folks.” Trans women, she said, are disproportionately placed in solitary confinement under the guise of “safety.”
Dr. Kate Hellenga, the staff psychologist at a San Francisco county jail, said during her public comment that she is currently on medical leave due to PTSD caused by the environment inside the prison.
“I saw and heard verbal threats of harm, transphobic harassment, physical harm done in the name of control, and what I believe are abuses of inmates’ rights,” she said. “The culture and context of the jail is such so that sworn staff, if they want to, can hide or justify abuse of inmates and their rights as long as everyone there agrees on what happened and nobody else speaks up.”
“I don’t think I can (go back),” Hellenga said during an interview. “It was too stressful and too intense, and there were too many ethical conflicts for me to feel comfortable being there. There are good people there doing good work.
“At the same time, I think hierarchal authoritarian structures create abuses of power. So as long as that’s the structure, it’s going to be hard to change anything.” She clarified that she was speaking as a private citizen, and not on behalf of the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) or Jail Behavioral Health.
Sheriff Vicki Hennessy said during the hearing that the Sheriff’s Department requires more “budgetary resources” in order to conduct trainings to make prisons safer for inmates. Allegations of abuse, she said, are handled by the department’s internal affairs division. If they are proven to be criminal, they are sent to the District Attorney’s Office. She admitted that this process is “no longer a model that the public will support.”
“What we are focused on here is complete systemic change,” Supervisor Walton said at the end of the hearing, “and looking to ensure allegations of misconduct are independently investigated and consequences independently decided when allegations are proven to be valid. In the cases of allegations of assault, civil rights violations, use of force and in-custody death, this is even more crucial.”
Sam Moore, a journalism student at San Francisco State University, is interning with the Bay View this semester. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.