Jailers arrested in death of mentally ill inmate: Will case prompt reforms?

'Disappointment and disgust' at the death of Michael James Tyree have renewed calls for reform in how mentally ill inmates are handled in jail.

Karl Mondon/San Jose Mercury News/AP
Pedestrians walk past the Santa Clara County Jail in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday. Three California correctional deputies have been arrested on suspicion of murder in the death of an inmate at a county jail, Santa Clara County Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. James Jensen said Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015.

Three jail guards in Northern California have been arrested and accused with beating to death a mentally ill inmate last week. 

The three officers – Rafael Rodriguez, Jereh Lubrin, and Matthew Farris – remain in custody without bail, according to a Santa Clara County sheriff’s spokesman.

Michael James Pipkin Tyree died on Aug. 27 of multiple blunt force injuries, “visceral lacerations,” and internal bleeding, according to Santa Clara County Medical Examiner Joseph O’Hara.

Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith apologized to Mr. Tyree’s family on Thursday, tearing up during a press conference. Calling the three officers “accused murderers,” he said “the disappointment and disgust I feel cannot be overstated.”

Sheriff Smith, who was flanked by 18 uniformed officers and a dozen other plainclothes officers, said she apologized directly to two of Tyree’s sisters earlier Thursday.

The three officers were removed from duty the day after Tyree’s death, Smith said. It took several more days for them to be formally arrested, and they are currently on unpaid administrative leave. The San Jose Mercury News reported that while they work under the sheriff’s office they are not fully sworn deputies. 

Attorney Paula Canny, representing Tyree’s family, commended the “extraordinary” response from the sheriff’s department, and said she hopes the district attorney will bring the officers to justice.

“This could have been dragged out,” Ms. Canny said. She added that Tyree’s death should influence “how we, as a system, treat mentally ill people.”

Mr. Tyree was homeless and serving a 5-day sentence on a petty theft charge and was waiting to be transferred to a mental health facility. He had pleaded no contest to the charge in a special mental health court three days prior to his death. 

Lindsay Solomon, who dated Tyree when she was a teenager in Coral Springs, Fla., told the Mercury News that Tyree had tried unsuccessfully to keep his bipolar disorder in check. She told the paper he could get “very agitated and agitate someone else. I could see it escalating.”

“But if you’re a police officer, or a guard, you should have better judgment than that,” she added.

The circumstances of Tyree’s death remain murky.

Smith refused to provide details but said the three officers were conducting a routine clothing search last Thursday when the beating allegedly took place. Tyree and other inmates in his jail wing were securely locked in their cells at the time. 

About an hour after the officers left the wing, one officer re-entered Tyree’s cell and issued a “man down” call. Tyree, naked and covered in feces and vomit, was declared dead by responding paramedics.

The treatment of mentally ill inmates in US jails has been highlighted by a number of recent inmate deaths, in particular the death of Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her cell in July three days after a routine traffic stop escalated to an arrest on assault charges.

Ms. Bland wrote on her jail intake form that she had attempted suicide once before in 2015.

The jail was cited after her death for substandard training in how to handle potentially suicidal and mentally disabled inmates. The jail was also cited in 2012. 

Nancy Fishman, project director for the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute for Justice, told The Christian Science Monitor in July that Bland’s death illustrated the human costs if calls for jail reform aren’t heeded. 

“This is not just for policy wonks,” she said. “People are dying, people’s lives are being ruined.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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