A Boulder Weekly story about the Boulder County Jail and the use of a restraint chair on unruly inmates has prompted other current and former inmates to come forward with allegations of abuse suffered at the hands of jail staff.
The story, “The chair and the camera,” ran on Jan. 17. The following week, jail staff installed video surveillance cameras in the disciplinary area where the restraint chair was used on an inmate who claimed he was taunted and abused by guards without justification. The cameras are intended to protect inmates — as well as guards who are sometimes falsely accused of mistreating their charges.
In the weeks that followed, BW began to hear from others who claimed they were mistreated at the hands of jail staff.
Seth Brigham, the Boulder City Council critic whose actions prompted city officials to unsuccessfully place a restraining order on him in August, says he was mistreated when placed in the jail’s disciplinary unit after being arrested on charges of trespassing, harassment and indecent exposure after an incident last September.
“Abuse is the norm, as conditions themselves are abusive,” says Brigham, who told BW he was placed in the disciplinary unit because it is the overflow area for mentally ill inmates. “I was left naked for three days in isolation with lights on, air conditioning turned on and off, food abhorrent, no toilet paper, using the same plastic spoon and paper cup.”
One woman who requested anonymity claimed she was strapped into the restraint chair for five hours straight, abused physically and verbally, and denied proper medical care for her diabetes.
Another, current inmate Brandon Carroll, tells a similar story. Carroll, who has been in jail since Aug. 28 on charges of second-degree kidnapping, aggravated robbery and menacing, says he was falsely accused. His trial is scheduled to begin Monday, March 11.
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Carroll, who is on dialysis because of a kidney condition, claims he was assaulted by guards on Dec. 12 after complaining to a nurse because she was handling his medications with her bare hands instead of wearing gloves. One guard “thought I was being difficult,” Carroll claims, and challenged him to a fight. The inmate says he refused, was told to get in his cell and, as he was walking to retrieve his cup and playing cards from a table where he had been playing spades, the guard pushed him to the ground.
He got up, and he acknowledges bracing for another blow by grabbing the guard’s shirt, at which point he claims the guard slammed him to the ground again, causing him to hit his head hard enough to cause swelling. He says several other guards jumped on him after the first guard falsely made it seem like Carroll was fighting back, and during the altercation he claims he was punched twice in the face and suffered a dislocated pinky finger and a cut in his mouth. One guard bent his arm where the needles for his dialysis are inserted despite Carroll’s protests, and they put a “spit bag” over his head even though he wasn’t spitting at the guards, he says. While he avoided being put in a restraint chair by being cooperative, Carroll says, he was harassed and teased by guards and deprived of medical attention for his dislocated finger.
“I ended up snapping it back in place myself,” he recalls.
The guards have a different version. The official incident report says Carroll struck the guard first. It also says Carroll was being verbally abusive to the nurse and refused to go to his cell when told, instead yelling “Get out of my face!” to the guard and taking an aggressive stance before punching the guard in the face. The report confirms that Carroll was punched twice in the face and several guards jumped into the fray.
The next day, Carroll says, he woke up with severe back pain, was denied medication and was told that since he didn’t have any visible bruises he was fine. When he was transported to a Longmont clinic for his dialysis treatment, the medical staff there documented the pain he was feeling in his side, but he never got any medication for it.
“Getting these people to care for you is very difficult,” he says.
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There is an ongoing internal investigation into the incident, and there is video footage of the altercation that both sides claim backs up their version of events. The video viewed by BW shows the guard grabbing Carroll’s arm, but it is unclear what happened afterwards because the two moved out of the camera’s frame.
Jeff Goetz, administrative commander for the jail, told BW that the internal affairs investigation is nearly complete and is expected to exonerate the guard in question, Dan Newcomb. According to Goetz, the district attorney’s office reviewed the case and determined last week that Newcomb did not overstep his bounds.
“Inmates say a lot of things,” Goetz says. “Sometimes they skip pieces.”
But Carroll claims that when he was interviewed about the incident, an internal investigator tried to get him to change his story by admitting to hitting the guard. He points out that if he had hit the guard, charges would have been filed against him.
Goetz points out that between his medications, dialysis treatment and paying deputies overtime to escort him to and from the Longmont clinic three times a week, Carroll is costing county taxpayers about $10,000 a month. Rather than charge Carroll with a relatively minor crime (Newcomb declined to press charges), which would likely further delay his trial — and extend the amount of time the jail has to cover his expensive medical care — the decision was made to drop the matter.
“Not filing charges, in the big picture, means he doesn’t stay here longer,” Goetz says.
Carroll says he is considering filing a lawsuit regarding the altercation, but he has to allow the internal procedures to be completed first.
“Being disabled, I shouldn’t be treated certain ways,” Carroll says. “I shouldn’t be assaulted and thrown down. Then they lie in the incident report because it’s your word against theirs. Just by luck I have the video to back me up.”
He adds that he fears retribution for telling his story publicly, especially because Newcomb works in the pod where his cell is located.
“I’m scared for my life, honestly,” Carroll says. “But it’s worth the risk, because it needs to be talked about.”
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He has a host of other complaints about his treatment at the jail, including regularly being denied medication he is supposed to take before meals, or being given the drug at the wrong time. Carroll claims that nurses sometimes try to give him another inmate’s medication and that one time he was placed on dialysis for only about two hours instead of his full four-hour treatment. Once, when he complained about being charged $2 for each “kite,” or written complaint he was filing, a jail staffer told him that if he wanted to stop paying the fee, the jail could always decide to stop footing the bill for his dialysis. Guards have also tried to keep him cuffed and in shock ankle bracelets during dialysis, he claims, even though he cramps up badly during the treatment.
“I can’t run with my blood being in a machine,” he says of the dialysis process, in which his blood is drawn through one needle, passed through blood-cleaning equipment, and returned to his body through another needle.
He also says there have been times he was neglected after his blood pressure registered high.
“When your pressure is high, you need to take it seriously,” Carroll says. “I’ve never seen the doctor here. I don’t even know what he looks like.”
Revada Farnsworth, the jail’s health services administrator, responded to Carroll’s complaints. She says he consults with the nephrologist he sees at least once a week at the Longmont clinic, and that doctor has control over all of his medications instead of the jail’s doctor. Farnsworth also told BW that Carroll was placed on a restricted diet because he seemed to believe that the restorative power of dialysis allowed him to eat whatever he wanted, including ramen noodles, Doritos and other food that is not healthy for someone who can’t have iodine or much sodium.
“We’re just protecting our own interests,” Farnsworth says, citing the investment the county is making in Carroll’s health. “Mr. Carroll has gotten a lot of attention while he’s been here.”
Farnsworth also says jail staff have adjusted the way they distribute medication to Carroll. Initially, in the morning they were giving him three doses of the drug that he takes before each meal — one for breakfast, one for lunch and one for dinner.
But she claims he was hoarding that drug and may have been selling it to other inmates, because a search of his cell uncovered a bag of about 24 doses. Now, according to Farnsworth, jail staff make special rounds to give him each dose individually, and “he refuses them quite often.”
As for another of his complaints, she says her nurses wear gloves most of the time and don’t touch medicine with their bare hands — pills are popped from a bubble pack into a medicine cup and liquids are poured into a cup.
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Regarding the injuries he sustained in the altercation, the incident report says a nurse saw him at 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 13, about five hours after the scuffle, and determined that his finger was just “jammed.”
“We’ve X-rayed it and there’s absolutely nothing physiologically wrong with it,” Farnsworth told BW. “By the time we saw it, it was not dislocated anymore.”
She adds that his back problems pre-date the incident. Farnsworth denies that nurses try to slip him other inmates’ medication, that he was ever threatened with discontinuing dialysis and that he was ever deprived of a full treatment.
“There has never been a time that we have taken him to dialysis and have cut it short,” she says.
As for the “kite” complaint process, Farnsworth acknowledges that $2 is charged for requests that prompt a nurse visit and for repeated frivolous requests, as a way to recapture some of the funding spent on staff time. Some of the money collected is invested into supplies for the inmates.
Goetz says patients are handcuffed when they are taken to non-jail facilities such as the Longmont clinic for security reasons, including the safety of the medical staff and to minimize the risk of flight in a setting where an inmate’s family or friends might try to assist in an escape attempt. (The one exception, he acknowledges, is that pregnant women are not typically shackled during labor and delivery, thanks to a 2010 BW investigation into that practice that prompted a change in state law.)
But Carroll has more concerns, including what he describes as unsanitary conditions in the jail.
“They have a lot of health issues,” he says. “Our showers have flies in them every day. They fly in our cells, they get in our food, people eat them and get sick.”
Goetz acknowledges that the jail does have a flying ant problem during certain seasons of the year and receives monthly visits from an exterminator.
“Every facility has that problem, no matter what state you’re in,” he says.
But he says Carroll should have no fear of retribution. He stresses that the welfare of the jail’s occupants is a top priority for his staff.
“We take the inmates’ health very seriously,” Goetz says. “Our job is to make sure they don’t leave here in worse condition than they came in.”
He also says he’s neither surprised nor concerned that additional accounts of mistreatment have surfaced since BW’s initial story in January, because he has confidence in the checks and balances system in place to protect the inmates — including the new video cameras in the disciplinary unit.
He adds that in an effort to be more transparent, the Boulder County Sheriff ’s Office is planning to start releasing annual reports about the general outcomes of internal affairs investigations.
“If someone thinks there has been an injustice, we encourage them to come forward, because we need to be held accountable,” Goetz says.