County showcases jail changes

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson Inmate Michael Padilla said when he was involved in an alleged escape attempt in February 2010 it was because conditions at the jail had become unbearable, but Thursday he said things had improved greatly at the jail and his behavior has not been an issue.

Sharna Johnson

Sitting calmly at a freshly painted table in the maximum security pod at the Curry County jail Thursday, Michael Padilla said dramatic changes in his environment have changed him since little more than a year ago. That was when police say he smashed a hole through his isolation cell wall and went on a rampage with three other inmates.

Thursday, the Clovis News Journal was invited to tour the jail by county officials showcasing changes in the facility.

“I wish it wouldn’t have never happened, but it kind of had to,” Padilla said.

Padilla said things at the jail have changed in the last year, and now “it’s the complete opposite of what it was.”

Padilla was referring to Feb. 21, 2010, when four inmates smashed holes through the walls of their isolation cells and went on a rampage, causing more than $14,000 in damage to the facility.

Surveillance video later released by police showed the male inmates ripping lights from the ceiling in the visitation room and trying to smash through a glass divider.

The night of the incident, Sheriff Matt Murray took emergency command of the jail when then-interim administrator Carlos Ortiz and several members of his command staff walked off the job.

Padilla, still awaiting trial in the case, said they weren’t trying to escape and classified the incident as a riot that resulted from the way he and other inmates were being treated by jail officials at the time.

Four months later, in June, Department of Corrections retiree Keith Norwood was hired to manage the facility and, though Padilla has been at the jail for two years through multiple administrators, he said it has finally started to feel stable.

Norwood has stressed the importance of inmate work, educational and religious programs and said he resents it when he hears the jail referred to as “his jail.”

“This is our jail,” he said.

Jail Lt. Jesse Lucero said that while there is never full trust between inmates and detention officers, there can be respect. and that making sure the inmates have a clean, safe environment motivates them to be cooperative.

Moved out of isolation and back into a pod with other inmates, Padilla’s behavior record has been exemplary, according to Lucero.

“Norwood has shown us how to compromise and work with people,” Padilla said.

But the troubled facility hasn’t been completely without problems in the recent past. Just three weeks ago, three inmates housed with Padilla in Pod 4, the jail’s maximum security pod, were charged with drug distribution after accused of arranging to have a detention officer bring them marijuana and tobacco in exchange for hamburgers.

The incident also resulted in the arrest of the detention officer and two women investigators say delivered the contraband and hamburgers to him in the jail parking lot.

Sheriff’s investigators never recovered the tobacco or marijuana but found an empty bag and burnt rolling paper ends.

Padilla was not charged in connection with the incident.

Inmate Jimmy Gonzales said until his recent charges, he stayed out of trouble 12 years and has a job and family waiting for him on the outside.

About two weeks from completing a seven month sentence for DWI, the 40-year-old said he hopes to never return to the jail. “I’ve made it my goal and this time just seems different. My family needs me out there more than they need me in here.”

“It ain’t the Holiday Inn,” he said with a laugh. “(But) Mr. Norwood has turned this place around. It’s better than what it’s been in the past.”

Gonzales, who said he has spent time in the jail before, said there’s no violence, the food has improved, the facility is cleaner and there are opportunities to work or attend classes instead of doing nothing.

Proud of the work he’s done, Gonzales said he painted all the trim in his minimum security pod, the tables and the floor and has helped with other projects.

When he looks at brightly colored murals being painted in the facility by inmates, he said he can’t help but be surprised.

“I never thought I’d see that in this place … I never thought they would permit that in the county jail,” he said. “I remember when they had a beat up TV and you had to use a spoon to change the channels.”

Times have certainly changed, said 27-year-old inmate Gabriel Rodriguez as he listened to music on an mp3 player his family brought him and added detail to the eyes of a blue dragon towering above him on the wall.

The jail is cleaner, the food is better, there are constructive things to do and the tension is gone, he said.

Painting a full-wall mural of brightly colored dragons in the jail’s arraignment room, Rodriguez said he has always drawn and done tattoos, but it is his first experience with paint.

“I don’t know nothing about paint. They’re letting me explore and see what I can do,” he said, explaining he enjoys the three to four hours a day he spends working on the painting, “It passes time.”

Rodriguez has been in jail off and on since the summer when he was arrested in connection with a string of daytime burglaries. In August he was also charged with attempted escape when a group of inmates were caught trying to punch a hole through an exterior wall in their cell, and court records show he has had a history of similar charges in his adult life.

But this time, he said, when he gets out he would like to work with a children’s art program and establish a career in art for himself.

“I pray that this is my last time (here),” he said.

Rodriguez’ wife Shaynell said she believes it will be his last time.

The couple met while she was working in the jail as a detention officer, but she said their relationship didn’t start until after October when she was terminated for an unrelated issue. They were married in December while he was out on bond but he was re-arrested on new charges of aggravated assault in February.

She said she is proud of her husband’s artwork and can see a change in him.

“Since he’s been with me, that whole lifestyle he had before has stopped,” she said. “Overall the warden (Norwood) is doing a good job by allowing the inmates to use their skills. They’re feeling a little more like they’re appreciated rather than convicted felons. People aren’t going to look at him as a criminal, they’re going to see him as an artist. Those murals, you and I wouldn’t be able to do those.”

Shaynell Rodriguez, who proudly displays tattoos her husband has done on her arms, said when Gabriel is home, “I’m his canvas.”