Tribune writer Gary Grado recently recounted a harrowing hour at a Maricopa County jail in which a kidnapping suspect was repeatedly beaten by four fellow inmates while awaiting a court hearing.
The obvious question is how could such an assault occur in a room filled with 24 prisoners while being recorded by a video camera in one of most heavily guarded areas of one of the state’s most secure detention facilities? The troubling answer is we probably should be grateful that inmate Rick Herman wasn’t killed, and that this type of wanton violence doesn’t occur more often.
Critics of Sheriff Joe Arpaio will assume the attack on Herman was made possible by a blatant disregard for the welfare of people in custody. But Grado’s Feb. 18 story revealed a more complicated intersection of jail overcrowding, inhuman reactions in adverse circumstances and unintended consequences from providing a modicum of privacy.
The assault took place in a holding area at the county’s Fourth Street Jail shortly after Herman had been arrested, while detention officers worked on the other side of the door. He and 23 other inmates were waiting for first appearance before a judge, after which jail officials usually assess an inmate’s risk of being attacked or harming others for proper housing. Grado reported that Herman’s fellow inmates came to the mistaken belief he was an accused child molester. For the next 60 minutes, they periodically pummeled him with fists and feet.
To keep the mayhem going, some of the attackers deliberately but subtly blocked views of the jail staff and even dragged Herman behind a privacy screen for the room’s toilet. Inmates not involved in the assault did nothing to stop it, and Herman never even cried out for help.
Given staffing levels and the severe overcrowding of county jails, it’s not surprising that detention officers spend little time in the narrow space of the holding cell where they would be significantly outnumbered. And preventing violence becomes immensely difficult when no one on the inside is willing to stand up and do the right thing.
But Arpaio and his managers shouldn’t just shrug their shoulders in the face of these challenges. They have a legal and moral duty to search for ways to reduce the threat to inmates. Prominent reminders that holding cells are videotaped to gather evidence if any crimes are committed could be a deterrent. Random but brief walkthroughs could still limit an officer’s exposure but present the opportunity to notice physical injuries. There also might be a need for additional cameras to make it harder for inmates to hide their activities from view.
Vigilante violence among inmates must be discouraged whenever possible, because the punishment almost never fits the crime and often spurs a growing cycle that eventually threatens to harm bystanders and jail staff as well.