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Inmates attack jailers in understaffed Criminal Justice Center 

Deputies at risk

click to enlarge Deputy Peter Brienza suffered an eye injury in the fracas.
  • Deputy Peter Brienza suffered an eye injury in the fracas.
Three El Paso County Sheriff deputies suffered injuries at the hands of Criminal Justice Center inmates within one week in late November, according to reports obtained by the Independent through a records request.

Deputy Peter Brienza was slammed in the head with a hard object on Nov. 20, causing a massive bloody eye injury. Deputy Stuart Scott suffered a cut hand in the same incident.

On Nov. 26, Deputy Holden Vanderpool was bashed in the head and then put in a chokehold, which left numerous abrasions and red marks on his neck.

The three deputies, who were treated at area hospitals, are the latest to be attacked at the crowded county jail that remains understaffed by five deputies, or an average of one per shift. The staffing problem persists despite 20 deputies graduating from the training academy in October. New deputies traditionally began their service as jail guards.

The Sheriff’s Office refused an interview request, but spokesperson Jackie Kirby says via email, “It should be noted that neither assault on Vanderpool and Brienza were a result of understaffing.”

Still, as of Dec. 1, the jail had seen nearly the same number of assaults in 2018 as were recorded during 2017, which was nearly twice the number as in 2016.

“A deputy is going to get permanently disfigured or killed there,” says one source intimately familiar with jail operations who commented on the 
condition of anonymity.

In 2016, there were 37 assaults in the jail, 13 against deputies. Last year, the number nearly doubled to 72, of which 24 were against staff. As of Dec. 1, 70 assaults had been recorded this year, 20 against staff.

In a June interview with KKTV about inmate attacks against deputies, Sheriff Bill Elder blamed the continuing violence on “contempt for cops.”

But the unnamed source says the reasons are two-fold: understaffing and mismanagement of the jail population.

For example, the attack on Brienza took place in a general population ward, but the source claims the inmate had previously been housed in a ward designated for those with prior disciplinary problems, including histories of aggression or mental issues. Despite a deputy reporting previously that the inmate was hostile toward law enforcement, that inmate was moved to the general population ward where he attacked Brienza.

“They’re just setting people up for failure,” the source says.

The source also says deputies continue to work two wards — rather than the normal one — of 80 inmates each, meaning one deputy is overseeing 160 inmates.

Kirby acknowledges the Sheriff’s Office is understaffed; it currently has an authorized strength of 835, both sworn and civilian personnel, but 29 slots aren’t filled. The Detentions Bureau’s floor security section, which oversees inmates, is down by five, or one for each of five daily shifts.

She adds that when the next academy graduates in 2019, the Detentions Bureau will be overstaffed by 11 deputies, assuming there are no intervening resignations, retirements or transfers.

The Criminal Justice Center reached a record high inmate count of 1,829 on Aug. 20. The jail’s maximum is 1,837, but Kirby notes the National Institute of Corrections recommends having 60 percent of a facility filled to accommodate classification/segregation issues. That would mean the jail should have a 
maximum of only 1,102 inmates.

On Nov. 20, when Scott and Brienza were attacked, there were 1,574 inmates, and 21 or 22 jailers — more than the normal 14 to 17 per shift due to overlapping shifts at that time. On Nov. 26, when Vanderpool was attacked, there were 1,611 inmates and 21 or 22 
deputies on duty, also due to overlap.

The Sheriff’s Office released reports of the incidents but refused to release videos, citing “security to the deputies and facility.” However, videos of incidents in the jail have been disclosed in the past, including one showing the death of Eliezer Tirado-Ortiz on Sept. 7, 2017, and a 2014 incident that led the county to settle a lawsuit with Philippa McCully for $675,000.

“Blood droplets all over the ward and outside the ward” is how Deputy Kimberly Farrell, a jail investigator, described the Nov. 20 scene after Deputy Brienza was attacked at about 1:45 p.m.

She says in a report that inmate James Bailey, 31, was incarcerated on charges of unlawful sexual contact and felony menacing, and was housed in a general population ward.

Farrell’s report says Deputy Scott told her he was getting inmates out of their cells two at a time to go to an internal area to place and receive commissary orders. Bailey began arguing with commissary staff about wanting certain items they didn’t have. Scott told Bailey there was nothing to be done that day and ordered him to lock down in his cell. Bailey then swung a pillowcase at Scott’s head. Scott “felt a blow to the left side of his head causing him pain and fell backwards slightly,” Farrell wrote.
He then saw Brienza engage with Bailey, which prompted Deputy Alexis Rincon, who was with the commissary employees, to call a “Code 20,” assault on staff, causing several other deputies to respond to the ward. Those included Deputy Charles Trenhaile, who said in a report he saw a “large amount of blood coming from above [Brienza’s] eye” and told him to leave while he and other deputies wrestled Bailey to the floor and handcuffed him.

Deputy Erik Vaupel says in his report Brienza was “bleeding profusely from his left forehead.”

Brienza’s report says Bailey “struck me on the left side of my face with a hard object.” He immediately felt pain “and observed blood continuously 
dripping off of my face.” Nevertheless, Brienza joined Scott in grabbing Bailey when he refused their orders to get on the floor. “Fearing for our safety, I delivered approximately four closed fist punches to Mr. Bailey’s head,” Brienza wrote. Scott also struck Bailey, hurting his hand, the reports said.

Even then, Bailey continued to resist. Several deputies arrived and told Brienza — who had “blood in my left eye, blood all over my shirt, and felt the left side of my face beginning to swell up” — to get medical help. Brienza had three cuts to his face that required 14 stitches, the sheriff’s reports said.

Scott also was treated at a hospital for his cut hand.

On Nov. 26, another Code 20 was called at 3:52 p.m. in the disciplinary ward, according to a sheriff’s report. Inmate Makovan Thompson, 19, who was incarcerated for a reason redacted from the report, was naked and had his feet wrapped in paper towels and toilet paper, Farrell’s report says.

Vanderpool told Farrell later that Thompson was out of his cell for an hour break and was wrapping himself in paper towels. Vanderpool ordered him to stop wasting paper towels, but Thompson ignored him. Then, Thompson rushed toward him, prompting Vanderpool to call a Code 20 just as “Thompson closed the distance and hit him in the left side of his face with his right hand.”

The inmate then “placed him in a head lock,” Farrell’s report says, and Vanderpool “delivered several closed fist strikes to Thompson’s body to free himself but was unsuccessful.” The inmate pulled the deputy to the ground with an arm still wrapped around his throat.

Though several deputies demanded that Thompson release Vanderpool, he refused, causing the deputies to intervene, reports say.

When Deputy Michael Barney saw Vanderpool in a chokehold, Barney “started hammer striking” the inmate in his upper back. Despite his loud verbal commands, Thompson wouldn’t let Vanderpool go, so Barney applied pressure to his neck.

Vanderpool suffered abrasions to his arm, top of his head, left eye and right ear, in addition to red marks to his throat.

Both inmates have been charged with assault on a law enforcement officer.

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