A Los Angeles County jail guard, Jonathan Grijalva, has been charged with assault for allegedly looking the other way so that a group of three inmates could beat up fellow inmate Saul Steve Lira on February 15, 2014.* Lira suffered a concussion, broken nose, and fractured jaw.
At the time of the incident, Lira was housed in a dorm in the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic. (Lira was in jail for a parole violation. He had previously been convicted of burglary, assault with a firearm, and vehicle theft.)
In a civil lawsuit against the LA County Sheriff’s Department, Lira said he was beaten after the dorm’s “shot caller” ordered him to clean the dorm, and then was displeased with Lira’s cleaning job.
Grijalva was reportedly approached by an inmate who asked the officer to leave the area so that another inmate could be beaten under a stairway.
In the hours after the beating, Grijalva, who was supervising the dormitory, allegedly refused to help Lira get much-needed medical attention. Lira, whose face was bleeding, said that when he asked Grijalva for medical assistance, the guard told Lira to wait.
When the deputy clocked out several hours later, he had reportedly done nothing to help Lira.
Later that night, a different jail guard approached Lira about his injuries. Lira told the custody assistant that he “slipped and fell in the shower.” No one reportedly questioned the validity of Lira’s account.
Lira said in the complaint that he lied out of fear of retaliation from the inmates who beat him.
There are methods for getting hesitant witnesses to talk, “but you have to make sure they don’t feel they’re going to be tagged as a snitch,” Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union told the LA Times’ Maya Lau. “It concerns me that there wasn’t a thorough investigation until the inmate filed a civil rights claim.”
Lira reported that he was not given adequate medical care—only painkillers—in the first week after he was beaten. The day after the incident, February 16, Lira was transported to the hospital, where his injuries were diagnosed. A doctor instructed LASD staff to bring Lira back to the hospital three days later, on February 19, so that doctors could wire Lira’s jaw shut “to prevent further avoidable injury, pain, and suffering.”
On February 19, jail staff reportedly refused to return Lira to the hospital. On February 22, Lira said he wrote a formal complaint about not being taken back for the procedure.
Guards transported Lira to the hospital two days after the complaint was submitted.
The case is being prosecuted by the LA County District Attorney’s Office’s Justice System Integrity Division.
Grijalva has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, the guard faces up to four years in prison. He has been on unpaid leave since October. Prosecutors also filed an assault charge against Raul McDonald, an inmate who allegedly stood guard while Lira was beaten. McDonald faces up to eight years behind bars if convicted.
The charges against Grijalva—who is not accused of personally abusing an inmate, but giving tacit permission for a beating to occur among inmates—mark an unusual step forward. Similar incidents of deputies or custody assistants allowing beatings to occur have been reported, but discipline has been rare to nonexistent.
Professional Peace Officers Association President Brian Moriguchi said he thinks the words of the “shot caller” inmate were given too much weight by prosecutors and sheriff’s officials.
“They take the word of hardened criminals over law enforcement officials,” Moriguchi told the Times. “They’re trying to show the public that they don’t tolerate abuse by police officers, but they’ve taken that to an extreme.”
Since the beating, positive changes have been made at the jail. The sheriff’s department already had 100 cameras inside North County Correctional Facility, and plans to add 600 more, LASD spokeswoman Nicole Nishida told the Times. And sergeants are now reportedly required to conduct interviews with injured inmates.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We originally mistakenly wrote that the incident in question occurred in 2015, but it was 2014. Also, Grijalva is a custody assistant not a deputy.