Get the best of Monitor journalism in your inbox.

Footage of inmate brawl highlights systemic problems in California penal system

A fight between up to 30 inmates in a California jail was captured on cameras bought and installed only the day before by the county sheriff, who felt unable to wait two years for authorities to spend $20 million in pursuit of the same goal.

A California brawl involving up to 30 inmates was caught on camera Thursday, a day after the surveillance system was installed.

The fight, which looks to have been racially motivated, took place in the same Santa Clara County jail where three correctional deputies are accused of fatally beating an inmate last August. Taken together, the two incidents are emblematic of persistent security issues in the California penal system.

The timing of the brawl was particularly striking. Not only did the fight break out only one day after the cameras were installed, but it occurred on the very same day a judge decided to go forward with a trial against the officers accused in the August incident.

It was that incident, together with exasperation at the bureaucracy governing the installation of a new camera system, that prompted the county sheriff to use her own money to buy cameras and set up a cheap, temporary system.

"If it's going to take two years to get a new system in, these are great in the interim," Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith told CBS San Francisco. "We didn't want to get hung up in the bureaucracy and the red tape. We wanted cameras in the facilities."

None of the injuries sustained during the latest confrontation is thought to be life-threatening, but on the very same day as the brawl, a judge declared there to be sufficient evidence against three Santa Clara County deputies for them to stand trial for second-degree murder of inmate Michael Tyree last year.

There had been no cameras to bear witness to that event, and after an official response to requests for a surveillance system detailed a two-year wait and a cost of $20 million, Sheriff Smith spent $761 of her own money at Costco instead, and the equipment was installed on Wednesday.

Yet monitoring the happenings within the jail walls is alone insufficient, if there are intrinsic problems to be addressed, observers say.

"Cameras are part of the solution," said Julio Alvarez, acting president of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers' Association, as San Jose Mercury News reported. "We need to address the systemic problems that are making our jails unsafe for inmates and officers."

California has long struggled to find the right balance in its penal system, with prisoners in that state being killed at a rate double the national average between 2001 and 2012.

Indeed, in the final year to which those statistics relate – 2012 – a US Supreme Court order required the state to reduce its inmate population by 33,000, which would still keep it at 137.5 percent of design capacity.

A report by RAND Corporation this year asserts that “California has been lowering the size of its prison population to meet the goal”, but there is still progress to be made.

Reducing the number of people incarcerated is just one aspect of a complex situation, made clear by the fact that a county sheriff felt obliged to use her own money to install surveillance cameras.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.