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A complaint, then six days in ‘the hole’: Lawsuit underscores power discrepancy in San Diego jails

Ronald Gadsden’s accusations against two deputies were not the worst leveled against the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, where scores of people have died in recent years and settlements and jury awards cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Not even close.

But what happened to Gadsden at the George Bailey Detention Facility in 2019 may be a case study in the power dynamic inside county jails.

It also may present a cautionary tale about how one deputy’s alleged grudge against a person incarcerated under their supervision can disrupt lives, spark federal litigation and cost taxpayers untold thousands of dollars.

According to the retaliation suit now being litigated in San Diego federal court, Gadsden was placed in “the hole” — solitary confinement — for six days after filing a formal complaint over the circumstances of his arrest.

“While he was held in the hole, Gadsden was denied clean clothing, denied the ability to shower and denied any contact with the outside world,” the legal complaint states.

“The segregation cell Gadsden was placed in was utterly filthy, covered with grime and hair and crawling with cockroaches,” it adds.

Numerous research studies have highlighted the damaging effects of solitary confinement, even for short periods of time. Studies have also found that people of color are more likely than white prisoners to be placed there and to suffer adverse medical and mental health effects.

Gadsden was eventually released back to the general jail population, but not before suffering mental and emotional damages, his lawsuit says. He is out of custody now and seeking unspecified damages and other costs.

The lawsuit initially named two Sheriff’s Department employees as defendants: deputies John Gehris and Michael McGrath. Gehris was dismissed from the case earlier this year and remains on duty.

McGrath, who had only been with the department since 2016, resigned in April to spend more time with his family, according to his deposition. He is nonetheless being defended by two county lawyers at public expense.

San Diego County officials declined to discuss the lawsuit, or estimate the cost to taxpayers of the legal defense. McGrath now runs a pest-control company in Spring Valley; he declined to be interviewed about the lawsuit.

In court papers, McGrath denied each of the allegations. His defense team said that he has qualified immunity from liability and that the complaints are barred under a series of laws and protections.

“Defendant alleges actions advanced legitimate goals of the correctional institution and was tailored narrowly to achieve such goals,” his lawyers wrote.

A complaint, then six days in ‘the hole’

An Oceanside man with a lengthy criminal record, Gadsden had been awaiting trial on charges related to being a felon in possession of a gun in early 2019.

Although the details are not recounted in the lawsuit, court records show he claimed the incident leading to his arrest began with a sheriff’s deputy racially profiling him when he was a passenger in a car that was pulled over in a traffic stop.

After Gadsden was booked into custody on the gun charge, he filled out a formal complaint and had it mailed it to his girlfriend for forwarding to internal-affairs investigators.

The same day his complaint landed at the Sheriff’s Department, Gadsden had a video visit arranged with his girlfriend. But when the time came for Gadsden to be taken to the video kiosk, McGrath told him the visit was canceled.

Gadsden asked another detainee to check the visiting area, and the man said there was an open kiosk with Gadsden’s name displayed on it. Gadsden then asked the man to log on and tell his girlfriend that he was not being allowed to visit, and the man agreed.

“At about 7:25 p.m., McGrath told Gadsden over the intercom, ‘Now your visit is really canceled,’” the lawsuit says.

Gadsden called the decision “bull—-” and requested another complaint form but was not provided one. His girlfriend, meanwhile, repeatedly telephoned the jail to complain that Gadsden’s visit had been wrongly denied.

“In the hours after this exchange, Gadsden’s cell was locked down, though all other inmates in the surrounding two tiers were permitted out of their cells to use the day room,” the lawsuit says.

After another incarcerated man tried to bring Gadsden a tray of food, McGrath turned off all the televisions in the day room and “shouted over the public address system to ‘Get the f— away from that cell,’” the lawsuit said.

McGrath again asked Gadsden if he wanted a complaint form, and when he answered yes, the guard told him to “roll up” his stuff because he was being transferred to solitary confinement.

“Neither McGrath nor anyone else explained to Gadsden why he was being put in the hole,” the suit said. “Neither McGrath nor anyone else explained to Gadsden how long he would be kept in the hole.”

The lawsuit alleges that on Gadsden’s fourth day in the hole, a deputy told him he had been placed there because he had filed an internal affairs complaint over his initial arrest.

‘You can’t let the inmates get over on you’

Experts say jail guards too often use their authority to punish detainees unfairly or for perceived slights. The threat of isolation or having privileges revoked is used regularly to push the jailed population into compliance, they say.

“This kind of abuse is likely regarded by offending staff as being among their sparse ‘weapons’ to subjugate inmates — a notion that is critical to the mindset of many, if not most ‘correctional’ officers,” said Paul Sutton, a retired San Diego State University criminal justice professor, in an email.

“The critical idea is that you can’t let the inmates get over on you,” he said.

Sutton said in his experience supervisors are reluctant to halt such abuses, because they know they will raise the ire of staff and their unions if they intervene.

“If people started getting fired over inappropriate behavior, then that behavior might begin to decline,” he said. “Or officers with an inclination to abuse would simply start quitting.”

Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts nonprofit research center that opposes mass incarceration, said almost everyone who has been locked up has a story about a guard abusing his or her power.

But too often, little is done to punish those at fault, she said.

“Especially when there are staff shortages, prisons and jails show a reluctance to bring consequences for COs (corrections officers) with a history of abusing incarcerated people,” Bertram said.

After reviewing the Gadsden lawsuit, Bertram said even minor incidents inside jails can have serious impacts on detainees and their families.

“Cases like this demonstrate the pain that it causes detainees, their families, and ultimately the public when officers who have a history of abuse are allowed to continue working with impunity,” she said.

Gadsden’s attorney, San Diego lawyer Alex Coolman, said the lawsuit fundamentally is about corruption.

“An attack on the internal affairs system of the jail would chill inmates from using that system, and there is only one group that would benefit from that chilling,” Coolman said.

“Disciplinary segregation is a very heavy form of discipline, reserved for major disciplinary problems like fighting and assaults,” the lawyer added. “It was not appropriate here.”

Under the Sheriff’s Department’s detention policy, isolation is designed to protect detainees and staff.

It is generally reserved for people sentenced to death, extremely violent detainees, suspected juveniles and “those who have displayed a continual failure to adjust and conform to the minimum standards,” the policy says in part.

Depositions in the case are continuing, and a trial is scheduled for later next year.

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