Beaten at the Jailhouse?

An Austin woman claims a misdemeanor arrest led to a beating at the hands of Travis Co. jail guards

Valerie Steele says these bruises came at the hands of guards at the Travis County jail.
Valerie Steele says these bruises came at the hands of guards at the Travis County jail.

As Valerie Steele tells her story, on the afternoon of March 30, 2002, she was driving down West Sixth Street when she stopped to check a tire. A police officer stopped nearby, at first to see if she was OK -- but then called in her license plate and discovered a Travis County Sheriff's Office arrest warrant for failing to surrender her driver's license. As far as Steele knew, the original charge against her -- driving on a suspended license -- had been adjudicated the previous fall, when her attorney asked the court for an extension because Steele had been hospitalized for emergency medical care. Court records show that Steele's doctor had indeed faxed a letter to that effect -- but there are no further notations in her court file until the March 1 warrant.

Steele says she believed her attorney had disposed of the case -- at least until March 30, when she was abruptly transported to the Travis County central-booking facility. There she began having chest pains and was taken to Brackenridge. (Steele has numerous chronic ailments including a heart disorder, a broken bone in her back, and high blood pressure, she says, all of which require constant medication and doctor's care.) Steele was returned to the jail the next day for -- according to jail records -- an uneventful evening. But beginning April 1, she began having problems.

Then she describes what sounds like a jailhouse nightmare.

According to Steele, her blood pressure was rising, but the jail staff withheld her medication. Other inmates began harassing her, and she was getting more and more nervous, perhaps due in part to her medical condition. "It was getting really scary," she said. She called her uncle, James Steele, and asked for help. "She said she felt she might be in some danger from the guards," he said, and because she was so unusually distressed, he called the sheriff's office and reached someone on Valerie's unit. "They said she was fine, that they could see her sitting at a table," he said. "Then [the corrections officer] said, 'Well, we've got something happening; I've got to go,' and they hung up."

What was happening, it turned out, was that Valerie Steele was trying to escape -- by running through a glass partition. "I was terror stricken," she said. "I was operating on sheer adrenaline." Corrections officers subdued her by administering a chokehold. "I woke up in an isolation cell with restraints on my arms, legs, and chest." Notes made by staff at the jail corroborate that much of Steele's account, saying Steele had been taken to the "violent room" and placed in the "restraint chair" where she "appeared anxious, panicky, but demonstrated ability to calm down."

Both Steele and the jail notes recount a deteriorating situation. Steele panicked and tried to bite her hand -- believing if she injured herself they would have to remove the restraints. But a nurse simply cleaned and dressed the bite while Steele remained in the chair. But at 2:30am on April 5, jail notes say Steele was "assaultive" and kicked a guard adjusting her restraints -- a charge Steele denies. (Her medical chart describes Steele as 5 feet 5 inches and 170 pounds.) In response, jail staff first administered two injections of Haldol -- a strong antipsychotic drug, typically prescribed for schizophrenics -- in an apparent attempt to tranquilize her.

What happened next, according to Steele, has left her emotionally scarred. She alleges that six guards entered the room, while she was restrained, and beat her. "They started pushing me around. One told me my daughter was dead," she said. "The guard told me that he was going to make me his trophy. Six guards beat me black and blue."

The next day, as confirmed by jail records, Steele had two black eyes and a host of bruises, although the notes do not say how her injuries occurred. For April 5, 4:45am, the notes read: "Multiple bruises to body. Bilateral ... bruising to eyes. [An approximately 2-and-a-half-inch] bruise to left cheek. [Approximately 1-inch] diameter bruise to [upper] left shoulder. [Two 1-and-a-half inch] bruises to each hip, multiple scattered bruises to both arms. [Approximately 1-and-a-half inch] diameter scattered area to left hand. Scattered abrasions to both [lower] legs. Approx[imately 2-inch] bruised ... area to left lateral foot." The notes add that Steele was finally calm: "Cooperative and pleasant. Able to follow simple directions."

Francis Williams Montenegro, the attorney appointed to handle Steele's case, visited her two days later, on April 7. "She looked terrible," Montenegro said. "She had a couple of black eyes. I had no idea what I was walking into," he said. "She was very terrified." On April 15 Steele was released, her misdemeanor accounted for by the time she'd already served.

According to TCSO spokesman Roger Wade, jail records reflect that during her incarceration, "There was an incident noted, that she had assaulted a guard." Steele admits she did bite a guard during her early-morning beating and says the guards threatened to charge her with assault. They never did. "Yeah, I bit the guy while they were beating me up," she says. "If there'd been any validity to it they would've pressed charges against me. I wish they had, so I could tell a judge why I bit him."

Wade says the jail records make no mention of a beating but do say Steele waived her right to a disciplinary hearing on the guard-biting incident, and she was placed in segregation and had her privileges revoked until she was released. Wade said it will take another week to get Steele's full file and have it reviewed before he can comment further. Steele admits she never filed a complaint with TCSO's internal affairs division -- she says she didn't know she could still do so. In the meantime, the Texas Civil Rights Project is looking into Steele's case.

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