Three Prisoner Deaths in One Month Expose Murder and Brutality in Santa Clara County Jails

October 5, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


Over the last month there have been three deaths of prisoners at jails in Santa Clara County, California, which includes the city of San Jose. The deaths have exposed the cruel conditions in the jails and the murderous brutality of the guards.

Murder of Walter Roches

In the latest incident, Walter Roches, 33, was taken to the jail on September 20. Sources told ABC 7 News in the Bay Area that he may have suffered a psychotic episode at the jail. Santa Clara County Undersheriff John Hirokawa said, “Jail staff noticed he was banging the door with his fist and a bit angry.” When Roches refused to take psychiatric medications or to leave his cell, guards responded with brutality, spraying him with pepper spray. Then they tossed a “Clear Out” tear gas grenade—a military-grade grenade used to clear areas up to 23,000 sq. ft.—into his small cell.

Then they brought out an FN-303 riot gun, which shoots plastic capsules filled with small metal beads. It is used by the U.S. military for crowd control in Iraq and Afghanistan. The guards fired three times at Walter Roches, shooting him at a distance of about 6 to 8 feet. Sources tell ABC 7 News that he had 15-inches of bruising on his upper abdomen and chest area.

Five days later, Walter Roches died at the jail. Reports say a cop found him with “a bloody froth coming out of his mouth.”

Murder of Michael Tyree

Michael Tyree, 31, had already served his five-day sentence on misdemeanor charges in the same Santa Clara County jail as Walter Roches. He was waiting for a bed to be available so that he could be transferred to a nearby mental health facility. On August 26, guards were conducting a cell-to-cell search in the section of the jail where Tyree was being held. As  the guards went through the jail, they delivered a beating to another inmate that left visible marks.

Other prisoners reported that, when the guards got to Michael Tyree’s cell, they heard him screaming, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Stop.” This was followed by minutes of screaming, thumping, wall-banging and “what sounded like blows to a person’s body,” according to an official report.

The medical examiner reported Tyree had significant bruising above his eye, near his chin, on his cheek and on his arms, legs, back and hips. A blow to his lower left back caused serious damage to his spleen and liver, leading to internal bleeding. The medical examiner’s report said that Tyree’s injuries would have led to death in less than an hour.

But the guards did not even call for medical assistance after the beating. Instead, they acted as though nothing had happened. One prisoner in a nearby cell reported that after the beating noises stopped, the guards remained in the cell for about five minutes, and that after the guards left he saw Tyree’s body naked and motionless on the floor of the cell.

The three guards returned an hour later and pretended that they had just found Michael Tyree’s body—only then did they call for medical attention.

The Contra Costa Times reported that prisoners described Tyree as a nice man who was mentally ill. He often refused to shower or change his clothes, they said. He also didn’t have any money on his commissary books for extra food, so he’d go around to ask other prisoners for food and to dig through the unit’s garbage can for scraps.

The three guards have been charged with murder in the case. Despite the terrible nature of their crimes, all three have been released on bail.

Pattern of Brutality

Normally deaths in the county jail aren’t even publicly reported. The exposure of the death of Michael Tyree is the only reason that we know about the deaths of Walter Roches or 50-year-old Noriko Seales, locked up on drug-related charges, who was found dead at another Santa Clara County jail shortly after Tyree’s death.

Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith has gone into damage-control mode, claiming to be open and transparent while carrying out a more sophisticated cover-up, including bringing in the FBI. But reports of outrages continue to pour out. ABC 7 News reported that the pigs  who have been charged in the murder of Michael Tyree texted each other, bragging of their brutality. One of the cops texted to another, referring to a cellblock he patrolled, “I love 6A no camera and no groups, I hope I keep it.” The other cop responded by texting, “I slapped a guy yesterday Cu (sic) he was cursing at the nurse and I told him to shut the (expletive) up and have some respect. He was so surprised about me slapping him that he sat on his bed with his hand on his cheek hahaha.” Some media have also reported that racist text messages have been found on cell phones of guards.

The exposure of abuse has led to a more than 100 complaints from prisoners being filed over the past month.

After the death of Michael Tyree, Santa Clara County promised a “Blue Ribbon Commission” to investigate and conduct public hearings into conditions at the jails. County Executive Jeff Smith is now recommending that the commission not be allowed to take public testimony on incidents in the jail and only look at “policy, procedures, and operations.” In other words, all those who have bravely stepped forward to document the conditions at the jail will NOT have the opportunity to testify publicly.

The exposure continues and has sparked protest. On September 30, the local chapter of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network (SMIN) held a demonstration and press conference outside the jail, which received coverage in the local media.

Which Side Are You On?

The brutality on display in the Santa Clara jails takes place in prisons and jails across the country and on an outrageous scale.

What kind of system shoots military-grade weapons at an unarmed mentally ill prisoner in a small, confined cell for refusing to take his medication or to leave the cell? What kind of system beats a naked man to death in a cell while he begs for help? From a standpoint of basic morality, any system that finds this kind of injustice acceptable needs to be declared unfit to rule.

But also from a standpoint of basic morality another question must be asked. How can anyone stand by silently while this kind of abuse is being carried out? This horror must end NOW!
People have a chance to make a giant step toward ending terror and murder by the police by being out in the streets for Rise Up October on October 24 in New York City and by getting the word out and challenging everyone they know to be there as well.

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