Jailhouse justice

A group of sheriff's deputies is accused in civil court of beating jail inmates


San Francisco's popular Mike Hennessey — the longest-serving sheriff in the state after winning seven elections — likely won't be facing a major challenger during his reelection bid this year. But a group of his deputies are being targeted for allegedly employing abusive tactics.

Six former jail inmates are charging in a civil lawsuit that they were beaten severely, left without medical attention, and forced to remain in administrative segregation for days, weeks, and even months. They originally filed suit in 2005, alleging that while in pretrial custody at various jail facilities in the city, including the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street, they were punched, kicked, or slammed by deputies from the Sheriff's Department, which oversees the jails.

A judge, after dismissing an attempt by the deputies to have the suits tossed, ruled in December that at least four of the former inmates could take their allegations of excessive force to a jury trial. Some of the plaintiffs claim they were denied proper medical treatment for the resulting injuries, while others say they've endured chronic pain or injuries since the alleged attacks took place.

"The only reason these cases have come to light is because two of the inmates ended up in San Francisco General Hospital," Scot Candell, an attorney for the inmates, told the Guardian. "They were knocked unconscious."

Candell has been a criminal defense attorney in the city for 10 years, working most recently out of an aging Victorian with mismatched carpets on Webster Street. He'd never handled a civil suit before but said he took the cases, along with cocounsel Mark Marin, an attorney based in Sacramento, because the allegations represented a disturbing pattern of inmate mistreatment by the accused deputies.

He was aware of such complaints made by inmates in the past but says they were often unfounded or he chose not to take them seriously. Candell says he still believes most of the department's deputies handle inmates appropriately. But he argues that these cases went too far and the inmates had no legitimate venue for complaining about them afterward.

"In general with people in custody, there are a lot of problems representing them both criminally and civilly," Candell told us. "They don't have a lot of credibility. But when I saw Mr. Henderson, there was no denying that there was a problem. You don't just get a broken back from falling out of your bed."

Earnest Henderson claims that in December 2003, following a verbal dispute with deputies involving an extension cord, three of them trapped him in a utility room, slammed him to the ground, and punched him repeatedly in the head until he slipped in and out of consciousness and was left naked in a padded cell.

He later fell to the floor twice in his cell because of a pain in his back, jail medical records show, and finally had to be transported to San Francisco General Hospital after the second fall knocked him out. There, doctors discovered a broken lower vertebra, which attorneys for the city later characterized as "minor." The city attorneys insist Henderson was inciting inmates by yelling and kicking his cell door and the deputies were merely working to contain him using only constitutionally permitted "nonlethal force."

Inmates in county custody have basically one avenue outside civil litigation for pursuing grievances against deputies alleged to have used excessive force. But the inmates complain that the Internal Affairs Division of the Sheriff's Department didn't thoroughly investigate their grievances, while the deputies continued working in the jail.

Voters created the Office of Citizen Complaints in 1983 to serve as an independent watchdog over the San Francisco Police Department and a place where civilians can go to protest law-enforcement misconduct.

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