Another Santa Clara County jail inmate death under investigation

This is the county’s third in-custody death in 33 days

By Hamed Aleaziz
San Francisco Chronicle

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Investigators are looking into how another inmate died at the Santa Clara County Main Jail in San Jose — the county’s third in-custody death in 33 days, officials said Tuesday.

The death is under investigation by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail and has come under scrutiny since the beating death of an inmate in August that led to murder charges being filed against three correctional officers.

On Monday, a correctional officer found the 33-year-old inmate “unresponsive” in his cell at 10:30 a.m., sheriff’s officials said. He was pronounced dead after attempts were made by jail staff to save him, officials said.

“The Sheriff’s Office is following its standard protocol for an in-custody death that includes, but is not limited to, deploying Sheriff’s Office detectives, contacting the district attorney’s office as well as the medical examiner coroner’s office,” the statement said.

The man, whose name has not been released, was housed in an area with nurses on duty around the clock, said Sgt. James Jensen, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office. Defense attorneys were also in the area at the time the man was found unresponsive, he added.

Sheriff’s deputies arrested the man Sept. 6 on suspicion of assault and battery and a parole violation. He was booked into the West Hedding Street jail and released on Sept. 19, only to be arrested again the following day by Milpitas police on suspicion of assault and battery, public intoxication, a warrant for a traffic violation and a probation violation, officials said.

Sheriff’s detectives will be doing a “complete investigation” into the death, including looking into whether force was used at the jail or during his most recent arrest, he said. Detectives plan to interview witnesses, including nurses and inmates, at the jail to see “if anything suspicious” occurred, Jensen said.

Late Tuesday, officials released information about a “cell extraction” earlier this month where the inmate was pepper sprayed and shot with plastic projectiles after he refused to leave his cell.

On Sept. 21 around 8:45 p.m., the inmate was uncooperative during cell checks and began banging his fists on his cell door, according to a statement from the sheriff’s office. Guards determined that he needed to be moved to another part of the jail, but he refused to leave his cell, the sheriff’s office said.

After trying to convince him to come out of his cell for roughly 90 minutes, deputies decided that a physical extraction was necessary, officials said, first deploying pepper spray, which proved unsuccessful.

Guards then deployed two bursts of another chemical called “Clear Out,” meant to force the inmate from his cell, but that too was unsuccessful, officials said.

Guards then shot the inmate three times with “air-powered plastic projectiles,” but those efforts again failed and the staff members entered the cell to physically remove the inmate, which they did and he was cleared to return to the main jail just before 3:30 a.m. Sept. 22, officials said.

In September, three county correctional officers were charged with murder in the beating death of mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree, who was found dead in his cell after midnight on Aug. 27. Two of the three officers charged in Tyree’s death were released on $1.5 million bail each, while the third officer was set for a bond hearing Tuesday.

A female Santa Clara County inmate died at a hospital of natural causes Aug. 31, Jensen said.

Releasing information on in-custody deaths is among reforms the sheriff’s office enacted in the wake of Tyree’s case, Jensen said.

“The sheriff and undersheriff have been talking with community members and trying to be even more transparent than we already are,” he said.

County officials have also formed a commission to recommend other reforms to the county’s correctional system.

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