Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Susie Chavez says she’s terrified of going back to jail.
A little less than a year ago, corrections officers twisted her wrist and threatened to spray her with Mace because she wouldn’t stop crying after they shocked her with a stun gun, according to a video released last week.
The incident attracted national attention when the Journal published an article about it and posted the video on Thursday. It’s the subject of a law-enforcement investigation, and one jail sergeant is on paid leave in connection with the incident, county and union officials say. And it prompted a community rally set for this afternoon in Civic Plaza.
In an interview this weekend, Chavez said she wants people to know she’s OK and that she just wants better training for officers, especially when it comes to handling inmates in distress.
“I want to let everyone know I’m doing well,” she told the Journal, “but psychologically, it’s been really messed up for me. Ever since that day, I’m scared of going to jail – scared if I do something I might be punished the same way or even worse.”
Chavez, 35, is now living in a tax-funded supportive housing program, where she receives counseling and goes to therapy.
She was in the county Metropolitan Detention Center in September last year on a drug charge and a warrant for a probation violation stemming from a 2011 case of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. She had been arrested at the end of August that year after Kmart security officers reported that she had stolen a $15 phone charger and a lollipop and police say they found her with a small amount of heroin. That case was dismissed.
Chavez said she struggled after her son was shot and killed in 2013 but that she didn’t deserve the treatment she endured in jail.
“It was awful,” she said. “For a minute, I thought I was going to die. … That was one of the worst moments in my entire life, besides my son passing way.”
Chavez said she filed a grievance about the incident, and other inmates did, too, but what seemed to get the county’s attention was a letter she wrote to the county’s Risk Management Department and the filing of a tort claim notice, a necessary step before taking the county government to court.
‘We have to rely on compliance’
Bernalillo County, which operates the jail, released the Chavez video last week in response to a Journal request under the state Inspection of Public Records Act.
The video shows officers confronting Chavez over magazine pages that appear to have been put up near her bunk. Posters can be used to hide contraband, which is why they attract the attention of corrections officers, the president of the jail employees’ union says.
In the video, one officer holds Chavez, who’s 4 feet, 11 inches tall, against a wall while another searches the cell. Chavez demands to know the name of the officer behind her and struggles – just before she’s shocked with a stun gun and falls to the ground.
She sobs and moans on the floor.
“Put her in a wrist lock,” one officer tells another, “and twist her wrist until she shuts up and stops crying.”
Chavez cries out and continues to sob. Officers threaten to spray her with Mace if she won’t be quiet, and eventually, she is sprayed in the face after she starts banging her head on the floor.
Sgt. Eric Allen, vice president of the jail employees’ union, is on paid leave at least partly in connection with the incident, county and union officials say.
Union President Stephen Perkins, who’s a lieutenant in the jail, said Allen is a good jail officer who exercises sound judgment, and his actions on the job are consistent with his training and the law.
As for the video, Allen and other officers did nothing wrong, Perkins said, and it’s appropriate to use force to get an inmate to stop yelling if the noise is keeping the inmate from following commands.
Inmates “need to do what they’re told,” Perkins said Sunday. “It doesn’t work any other way, or we’ll have anarchy.”
Perkins and other supporters of Allen have cautioned the public against drawing conclusions without understanding the context of what it’s like to work with inmates.
“Jail isn’t a great place,” Perkins said. “There’s still more of them than there are us, so we have to rely on compliance” with commands.
Allen himself isn’t seen in the Chavez video because he’s the one wearing the camera, though his voice can be heard.
He has been on paid leave since January.
It’s not his first dispute with jail administrators. The county fired Allen after an allegation of excessive force in 2008, but an independent arbitrator ordered the county to reinstate him.
The arbitrator ruled that the county’s use-of-force policy was too confusing, that there were “gross discrepancies” in training and that Allen’s actions in the incident were reasonable.
County officials, in any case, say they developed a new use-of-force policy this year. It was crafted in consultation with attorneys who represent inmates as part of a 20-year class-action lawsuit over jail conditions.
‘I can’t be the first one or the last’
Chavez, who grew up in foster care, is now focused on her children, including a 14-year-old son.
Chavez wants to “get him the chance I never got in high school,” she said.
And she said she hopes the jail trains its officers to prevent more people from going through what she did.
“I know if they did it to me, I can’t be the first one or the last,” she said.