Another round of allegations about guards abusing inmates has surfaced at the Boulder County Jail, but officials are dismissing the claims as fabricated.
An internal affairs investigation has cleared one officer accused of using a Taser to stun an inmate on his bare buttocks and genitals, and jail administrators are denying that two inmates were kept naked in a one-person cell for five days without a functioning toilet.
Boulder Weekly has examined several recent claims of jail staff abusing inmates, including Joshua Johnson’s allegation that he was taunted and beat up by guards in September 2009 while being strapped into a restraint chair. Jail officials installed video cameras in that area of the jail the week after the Jan. 17 article was published, saying it was as much for the guards’ protection against false claims as anything else.
Other cases include the allegations of Brandon Carroll, a dialysis patient who claimed he was deprived of proper medical care and was assaulted by guards on Dec. 12 after complaining to a nurse because she was handling his medications with her bare hands.
And in August, Robert Kirkland filed a lawsuit alleging that deputies’ rough handling resulted in a fractured left leg, fractured big toe and dislocated left hip and elbow.
Kirkland’s lawyer, prominent Denver civil rights attorney David Lane, has said he is considering filing a class-action suit because he has heard from about a half-dozen individuals who share similar tales of abuse.
“There are a lot of horror stories coming out of the Boulder County Jail,” Lane told BW. “We are looking at many of them. … If we can prove it, we’ll go after them.”
Jail officials have countered the claims with reports from guards that contradict the inmates’ version of events, and they poke holes in the credibility of inmates who have serious criminal histories and may just be lashing out against the guards.
Jeff Goetz, administrative commander for the jail, has said that guards receive extensive training on the appropriate use of force, and that sometimes, for the safety of the deputies and out-of-control inmates, things like a “straight-punch to the chest,” the restraint chair and the Taser are warranted.
The latter was at the center of the most recent complaint against jail staff.
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Cody Finch, who has also been in touch with Lane, claims he was stunned with a Taser on his bare buttocks and testicles during an April 4 incident in his cell. He says he was singled out by guards who wrongly suspected him of causing a flood in the jail by flushing clothing down his toilet.
“They have it out for me, for some reason,” says Finch, 26, adding that another inmate warned him that he could see guards coming for him with their gloves on. “When they have their gloves on, you know they’re going to get physical with someone.”
Finch, whose criminal history from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation since 2006 spans six pages, was convicted of eight felonies earlier this year, including sexual assault, second-degree assault, second-degree burglary, stalking, bribery and tampering with a witness. He claims he was framed by an ex-girlfriend when they had a fight after consensual sex. Finch was sentenced to 52 years to life in prison last week. (Ironically, when he was 10 years old, Finch made national news and an appearance on the Montel Williams talk show after he reportedly harassed and punched a female classmate after their make-believe playground wedding went south. A restraining order was issued to keep the two children apart, according to media reports.)
Deputy District Attorney Chris Estoll, the prosecutor in Finch’s case, casts doubt on the inmate’s credibility, saying he argued at Finch’s sentencing hearing that “his perception of reality doesn’t match with actual reality. I think his history of offenses bears that out.”
Finch’s version of the events on April 4 is that when he was slow to comply with guards’ orders to stand up and be handcuffed so that his cell could be searched, they grabbed him, cuffed him, pulled his pants down and used the Taser on him from behind. Another inmate, Matthew Paiz, who says he saw the incident because his cell was across from Finch’s, wrote and signed a statement upholding Finch’s version of events. According to Paiz, after the incident he heard guards tell Finch to pull up his pants.
Finch says he was told by a guard, “Who do you think they’re going to believe? You or us?”
After the alleged abuse, Finch says, he was denied medical treatment for his injuries, and when he asked for his privates to be examined and photographed, a guard reportedly accused him of simply trying to embarrass the female nurse and denied his request for a male nurse.
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The deputies’ incident reports tell a different story. The two who initially responded say Finch was being uncooperative and physically resisted efforts by guards to handcuff him. They say he has a history of such behavior, and a history of flushing clothes down the toilet, which not only can cause flooding but costly damage at a nearby water treatment facility. Because Finch was being combative, the deputies say, a third officer, Sgt. Michael Cavin, came into the cell with his Taser. In their reports, the first two guards don’t mention where Cavin used the Taser on Finch’s body, other than it being placed initially on his right shoulder blade.
In his report, Cavin acknowledges stunning Finch on his back and then placing the Taser on Finch’s buttock, although he says it was outside of his pants and only “in case another cycle was required to gain compliance.”
The internal affairs investigation concluded that Finch’s allegations were unfounded, according to Jail Division Chief Bruce Haas. The district attorney’s office, which conducts an inquiry as well when a deputy is accused of a crime, reached the same conclusion.
Haas explained that an investigator outside of the jail division conducted the internal affairs inquiry, “so we’re not investigating ourselves,” and the findings still need to be approved by the undersheriff and sheriff. While those approvals are likely, Haas says, the jail has shown it is capable of policing itself: About a year ago, deputies reported a fellow guard for treating an inmate too roughly, and that individual was suspended, even though the DA’s office determined that an assault charge was not warranted. He declined to provide the guard’s name.
“I don’t ignore [complaints],” Haas says. “We look into them and investigate what happened.”
In Finch’s case, the investigator determined that the guards used force because he refused to be handcuffed, not after he was handcuffed. It would be pointless to use a Taser on someone who was already restrained in handcuffs, Haas explains.
“We don’t do that,” he says. “There would be no reason to do that.”
And the Taser was used only on Finch’s shoulder and back, not below the waist, Haas told BW. He says that during his interview with the investigator, Finch backed off his claim about being stunned in the testicles.
“What we found in Cody’s statements was that there was obviously a lot of deception and a lot of mistruths,” he says.
But Finch’s mother, Jinx Finch, who has a background in law enforcement, says it’s the Boulder cops and prosecution who are being deceptive by manufacturing evidence, offering “sweet deals” to inmates willing to testify against her son, attempting to trump up additional charges against him and reading letters in which he discussed exonerating evidence so they could get witnesses to change their stories.
On the other hand, Goetz says Finch had 14 different hearings or write-ups for violations of rules during his year in jail.
“He’s not the most straight-and-narrow individual we’ve had in this facility,” Goetz says. “Of course, just because he’s a problem child doesn’t condone any behavior our staff may have done. … If we did something wrong, we need to be held accountable.”
But Goetz defends his deputies’ actions in this case, and he explains that Tasers reduce the chances that guards or inmates will get injured in an altercation when inmates are resisting physically. He adds that the buttocks are actually among the large muscle masses that officers are trained to aim for when using the Taser, because the stun device targets the muscular system. And he says Tasers work through clothing, as long as the clothing is touching the skin, so there would be no reason to stun someone’s bare buttocks.
Haas initially told BW that “absolutely, he was never Tased on his butt,” but later agreed there would have been nothing wrong with using a Taser on Finch’s posterior.
“If he had Tased him in the buttocks, that would have been fine,” he says. “You wouldn’t do it where Cody Finch claims he was Tased, in the testicles.”
The new video cameras installed in the disciplinary area where the Taser incident occurred did not capture much, in part because it happened in a cell, and in part because the second floor was largely outside of the cameras’ view. Since then, new wide-angle lenses have been installed to record what happens on that level, Goetz says.
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The Taser incident is not the only time Finch claims he was abused. He says that on Nov. 29, his cellmate was caught flushing a blanket down the toilet, and both inmates were told they were on “flush protocol,” even though his cellmate took sole responsibility for the incident.
Photo by Jefferson Dodge
According to Finch, they were forced to strip off their clothes, even though one female guard was present, and were placed in a single-person cell with an extra mattress and only one “suicide smock,” the tear-proof clothing issued to suicidal inmates. He says the toilet could not be flushed during the five days they were confined there, so they used the smock as a cover for the stench.
Finch says they resorted to urinating “through the crack in our cell door in hopes that it would get to a guard’s compassionate side and he or she would turn on our plumbing.” After the five days, he says, jail maintenance staff had to be called to unplug the toilet.
Finch also claims that Sgt. Cavin told them at one point, “I hope you faggots don’t spoon in there.”
According to the incident reports filed by the guards, a search of their original cell uncovered a large amount of extra clothing, pills and other contraband, and the two were “dry-celled” to keep them from flushing items down the toilet. The reports say Finch’s cellmate initially refused to wear the suicide smock and even threw it out of the cell before the door was closed. But the reports went on to say that both were issued smocks and blankets, and that deputies were to provide water for flushing when necessary.
As for Cavin’s alleged comment, Goetz doubts the veracity of that claim because he would have received complaints from others who overheard it.
“Language like that is not tolerated,” he says. “That’s crazy.”
“He’s above that,” Haas says of Cavin. “If we knew a deputy was engaging in behavior that would incite an inmate, or engaging in that type of behavior, we would not tolerate that.”
Goetz also disputes the allegation that the toilet went unflushed for five days. It’s true that inmates caught repeatedly flushing items down the toilet are “dry-celled,” but deputies can activate the flushing mechanism on toilets remotely, and they do so at the end of every shift and at an inmate’s request.
“Nobody stays in their cell for multiple days with unflushed toilets,” Goetz says. “Those rooms are small. It doesn’t take long for them to stink.”
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In response to Finch’s claim that there are four or five rotten apples among the guards, specifically the team that works with Cavin (including Deputy Daniel Newcomb, who was accused of assaulting Carroll), Goetz says that that crew works the night shift Wednesday through Saturday, when there is the most intake of rowdy inmates under the influence of alcohol and other drugs.
“People come in uncooperative all the time,” he says, adding that Cavin and his team work in the disciplinary area reserved for the most problematic inmates. “Are they heavy-handed? Absolutely not.”
Goetz also counters Finch’s allegation that guards seek retribution against inmates who file the most grievances and complaints, like himself and Carroll.
“If you call them out on what they’re doing wrong, they don’t like it,” Finch says.
Goetz acknowledges that there have been instances of deputies ripping up inmates’ complaints in front of their faces, but those guards have been disciplined.
In addition, Goetz challenges Finch’s assertion that guards bring contraband such as pens, lighters, cigarettes, pornography and even marijuana into the jail to make deals with favorite inmates. The commander says jail deputies are fairly well paid, and would never jeopardize their jobs by bringing in such items.
Goetz acknowledges that ugly stuff can happen in a jail. He says Finch himself recently set off what is known as a “shit bomb,” in which an inmate fills a plastic bottle with feces and water and stomps on it, shooting the mixture into an adjacent cell.
Unfortunately, Goetz says, deputies are often the target of such behavior as well, but “the deputy’s always going to give the inmate respect.”
Haas adds that inmates periodically come in with existing injuries or hurt themselves while in jail, and then the taxpayers are on the hook for the medical care.
“One inmate hit a wall and kicked a wall, and broke his toe and finger,” Haas says. “Well, we fixed him.”
When asked about the possibility of a class-action suit from Lane, Goetz and Haas don’t seem too concerned.
“Do we want to go through something like that? Of course not,” Goetz says. “Are we confident that we would be OK? Absolutely.”
Haas adds that Lane is probably just “trying to make a buck.”
“Our job is not to punish,” Goetz says of his deputies’ use of force. “That’s the job of the court system.”
And yet, while Finch says there are some good deputies who “don’t take that hard-assed stand and beat people up,” there are some bad seeds.
“I’ve seen a lot of stuff that happens, and if we sit here silent, it won’t change,” he says.