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County jail guards targeted for downloading sexually explicit Internet material while on duty
By Greg Cahill
IN A SEX SCANDAL that has shaken the beleaguered Sonoma County Sheriff's Department, more than two dozen county jail guards have been investigated for accessing pornographic websites and sexually explicit chat lines while on duty, the Independent has learned. At least one correctional officer already has been fired for his conduct in connection with the probe.
While a county jail official on Tuesday downplayed the scope of the activity, sources say the department is covering up the extent of the problem, adding that the six-month investigation has involved 29 correctional officers at the Main Adult Detention Facility (the county jail) and the North County Detention Facility (the honor farm), both in Santa Rosa.
The internal affairs division is investigating the male staffers for allegedly spending up to several hours a night downloading pornographic images into personal files on the department's new computer system and using county phone lines to participate in sexually explicit Internet chat lines.
According to knowledgeable sources who asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation, the investigation has targeted members of the county jail's elite Special Emergency Response Team and facility training officers, as well as rank-and-file guards.
Last month, a correctional officer was fired after investigators determined that on at least one occasion he allegedly had spent five hours straight surfing sex sites on the Internet during his shift, sources said. That same officer was on duty Feb. 24 when inmate Drue Harris, 37, hanged himself in his jail cell.
Harris' mother has claimed that her son was crying and distraught in the hour before his death and might still be alive if correction's personnel had intervened. It is unclear whether the fired officer had accessed Internet porn sites that night.
Most of the officers under investigation worked on the night shift. As many as 50, sources say, could be drawn into the probe, either as suspects or as witnesses.
The unauthorized use of the Internet reportedly came to light last fall when a supervisor walked in on a county jail guard who was viewing sexually explicit material on a computer screen and hadn't had time to close the file.
The Internet leaves an unerasable trail that will trace the activity, including the exact times certain computers were accessed.
"Everybody's doing the wait-and-see," said one Sheriff's Department staffer, "waiting for the hammer to fall."
Under Sheriff's Department internal affairs policies, officers are required to answer questions about the probe unless their response would be self-incriminatory. If caught protecting fellow officers or lying to investigators, suspects and witnesses can be found guilty of insubordination and face possible termination.
Those guards who have been called before investigators have been ordered not to talk about their testimony, but word has gotten around. "They're all scared," one source said. "They don't know who's ratting or lying."
While only administrative computers at the jail facilities have Netscape software, line officers apparently have found a way to "backdoor" into those networked computers from other workstations at the jail, using modems and a sharing setup to access Internet software on the administrative computers.
"Everyone is talking about [the internal affairs investigation]," said a county jail staffer. "Everyone is scared to death because their activity could be traced through the computer records."
Assistant Sheriff Sean McDer-mott, who heads the county jail, confirmed on Tuesday that the department is "putting the finishing touches on an investigation," and acknowledged that "we have disciplined one correctional officer."
He declined to elaborate on the disciplinary action, but insisted that the number of officers under suspicion is "less than 10."
Sources place the actual number far higher, noting that the department has beefed up the number of investigators in its internal affairs division to handle the increased case load.
"If discipline is warranted, depending on the level of inappropriate access [to the Internet], punishment could range from a letter of reprimand to suspension to termination," he said.
McDermott believes that the unauthorized use of county computers to access cyberporn has stopped. "Just the fact that we are looking into it should send a clear message that we don't condone it," he said. "It's not appropriate."
THE INTERNET porn activity is the latest blight on the Sheriff's Department. At the county jail in recent months there have been three suicides, at least two attempted suicides, two other in-custody deaths, and an embarrassing daylight escape from a supposedly secure lobby area by two male inmates who cut their way through a closet ceiling and strolled out of the jail complex.
Both were later apprehended.
Last week the county Board of Supervisors agreed to spend $35,000 to fund a state Board of Corrections review of the county jail's policies and procedures, including its contracted medical services.
It is unclear whether state officials are aware of the Internet porn use or if that activity has contributed to lax security or played any direct role in the recent suicides and escapes.
Yet one source said the widespread nature of the Internet porn scandal reflects a pervasive "boys will be boys" mentality that has condoned bad conduct at the Sheriff's Department in the past and helped encourage incidents of sexual harassment and worse.
The latest allegations are particularly significant because during the past two years the department has been criticized by the state Attorney General's Office for its mishandling of domestic violence cases, accused by some sexual assault victims of downplaying rape cases, and censured by local women's groups for its recruitment and hiring policies and its treatment of female staff.
IN ADDITION, the Sheriff's Department--both in the patrol division and in the county jail--has been the subject of several sexual-harassment claims by female employees. Two weeks ago, Sheriff's Deputy Ann Duckett--a highly respected sex-crimes investigator who had won a $100,000 settlement in a sexual harassment claim--quit the force and moved out of the state. Duckett--whom the Sheriff's Department often held up as a shining example of how well treated women are on the force--startled observers when she charged that male officers displayed "abusive attitudes and language to female deputies."
She claimed to have reported the incidents to supervisors and that no internal actions were taken.
"What we've been hearing again and again and again out of the Sheriff's Department is what a hostile environment it is for women, not only the level of sexual harassment but the total environment, and that it's a pressure cooker that's getting ready to blow," said Tanya Brannan, leader of the Purple Berets women's advocacy group, when told of the Internet porn probe. "This situation kind of explains both things. Certainly the porn feeds into the hostile environment, but also ... all of the pressure of keeping that secret must add to the pressure-cooker environment.
"I sure think that Sean McDermott has some answering to do for this. And so does Sheriff Jim Piccinini," Brannan added. "If this is another one of those scandals that just goes away, it's going to be pretty disgusting.
"We'd like to see some higher-level people take responsibility for a change."
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From the April 16-22, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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