Last week, after nearly two months of investigation by the Sheriff’s Office, two custody deputies were charged with assaulting a prisoner in the Santa Barbara County Jail on June 17. The Sheriff’s Office began looking into the incident when a public defender brought forward a complaint the day after the incident and turned evidence over to the District Attorney, which has accused the guards, Robert Kirsch and Christopher Johnson, of “assault by public officers.” The crime carries a maximum penalty of three years in County Jail.
Johnson has worked as a corrections and custody officer in the Sheriff’s Office for eight years, and Kirsch for seven, plus another 14 months as a utility worker for the department. The alleged victim, Charles Alonzo Owens, “complained of pain to his upper torso and was taken to the hospital [eight days after the alleged attack] for medical examination,” according to Sheriff’s spokesperson Kelly Hoover. She said health privacy laws prohibited her from describing his injuries in more detail but that he returned to jail after a short hospital stay.
The deputies were not booked or detained. They are on paid administrative leave. When asked about prior complaints related to the deputies, Hoover said she could not comment on personnel matters. According to the Sheriff’s Policy Manual, “It is the policy of this department that deputies shall use only that amount of force that reasonably appears necessary, given the facts and circumstances perceived by the deputy at the time of the event, to effectively bring an incident under control.” According to prosecuting attorney Anthony Davis, the use of force becomes illegal when it exceeds reasonableness for a given situation. He could not comment on whether the incident in question was recorded.
Owens will stand trial for two combined cases on October 21. One was a 2007 gang-related shooting murder in Lompoc. The other is for “rape, sodomy, attempted oral copulation, domestic violence, and witness dissuasion with a gang allegation,” according to Hoover. Owens’s public defender did not return phone calls.
A recent report warned that staffing levels at the jail are dangerously low while its population is burgeoning with inmates being transferred from prison due to the AB109 prison realignment law. Commissioned by the Sheriff’s Office, Paso Robles–based Crout & Sida Criminal Justice Consultants, Inc., issued an analysis of staffing and shift patterns at the jail on January 31. The report recommended that, with current shift patterns, 27 new full-time employees would need to be hired “to safely operate the jail.” Even with tweaks to make shift patterns more efficient, Crout & Sida said 18 new staffers would be necessary.
“It must be noted AB109 (realignment),” the report reads, “has had, and will continue to have, a significant effect on the workload of the jail. Jail populations throughout the state are increasing as additional former state inmates flood the local facilities. In my opinion, because the Average Length of Stays for these former state inmates is much longer than the typical county inmate, the population level of Santa Barbara Jail System will not only continue to escalate, but the overall classification level of inmates will increase to a more serious level as well.”
Conditions for both inmates and staff have been stressful for many years. On Tuesday, the DA announced that Lorenzo Padilla, 28, admitted to attempting to murder a custody deputy at a holding facility in the Santa Maria Courthouse with a “shank” on October 13, 2011. This January, the County Jail was put on lockdown after an exercise yard fight, then again in April after inmates lit a trash can on fire, initiating a small riot. In July, inmates went on a hunger strike.
Of the attempted murder, District Attorney Joyce Dudley said in a statement, “This case illustrates the dangers of working with violent gang members in our jail and holding facilities. The custody officers must maintain constant vigilance for their own safety and the safety of others. We acknowledge and appreciate the dedication of the officers to protect those of us inside and outside our jail.”
After the charges against Kirsch and Johnson were announced, Sheriff Bill Brown said in a statement, “The behavior alleged in the criminal complaint is contrary to the high standards of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. I am saddened by these allegations that do not reflect the conduct and actions of the vast majority of the hundreds of men and women of the Sheriff’s Office, who dedicate their lives to protecting and serving others.”