Roundtable: Afghanistan, Criminal Justice, Jail Mail
August 24, 2012 12:59 p.m.
Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief, L.A. Times
JW August, Managing Editor, 10News
Teri Figueroa, reporter, North County Times
Related Story: Roundtable: 2,000 U.S. Dead in Afghanistan, Criminal Cases Pose Challenge, No Jail Mail
SAUER: Good afternoon, and thanks for being with us. I'm Mark Sauer. Joining me are Tony Perry, good to see you.
PERRY: Good to be here.
SAUER: JW August, managing editor of 10 news in San Diego. Glad to see you again.
AUGUST: You too, mark.
SAUER: And Teri Figueroa, reporter with the North County Times. Good to have you here.
SAUER: If you'd like to join our conversation, give us a call. Exactly when we hit the milestone may be a matter of small debate, but the fact is that 2,000 Americans have now been killed in the Afghanistan war. An exhaustive story in the New York Times this week looked at each service member killed since the U.S. invasion and occupation began back in the fall of 2001. Not long after the 911 attacks. Notably the highest rate among those service members killed were marines, and while it took nearly nine years to reach the milestone of 1,000 dead in the war, it took just 27 more months to mark the 2,000 deaths. Tony, how have the dynamics in the war in Afghanistan have changed.
PERRY: The word surge has become part of our vocabulary, and the president of the United States authorized sending several tens of thousands of troops. But he endorsed the surge, he endorsed a surge that went into very dangerous places, Helmand province, Kandahar, both places where the Taliban is strong, where they have historically grown their strength and support from, and the battle was joined. Joined by the Marines from Camp Pendleton, the third battalion fifth regiment lost 25 dead, more than 200 wounded in a small miserable place called Sangin in Helmand province. So the battle was joined, and casualties went up, and it took about 27 months for the U.S. to suffer another 1,000 killed in action pushing recently to that dreadful number of 2,000. Compared to Iraq, in context, 4480 Americans dead in about eight years in Iraq.
SAUER: So the army has many more boots on the ground, but it turns out at the height of the fighting, marines in Afghanistan were dying at twice the rate of soldiers. Why is it that the Marines are disproportionately represented?
PERRY: Well, it all goes back to what it is marines do. It was true also in Iraq during the fighting there. For many months. In fact, several years, that a person most likely to be killed in Iraq was a Lance corporal from Camp Pendleton, and Camp Pendleton had the dubious distinction of having had more killed in Iraq for many months, many years, than any other military base of the United States. And the same is true to a lesser extent to in Afghanistan. The Marines ethos is to locate, close, engage, and kill the opponent. And they did this, and at some cost. And those costs pop up in the numbers. The army also has a larger tail-to-tooth, that is to say for every one individual outside the wire looking for a combatant to kill, there's a whole bunch of folks that don't leave the wire, as they say, this are something him. Marines have less so. Pretty much everybody in the Marine Corps is a trigger-puller, and when you have that, you're going to have casualties. And that's what we have had. Now, of course we have this terrible spectrum of what they call green on blue Afghan allies killing U.S. service personnel. We've lost 10 marines in I don't weeks, several from Camp Pendleton, several more from California. The battle is joined. We are at a point in the battle where the other side is taking it to the Americans. And the Americans are taking it right back.
SAUER: You had mentioned there just now about the green and blue, and the Pentagon says most such attacks are personnel grudges. The government says it's the work of Pakistani spies. Many reports say it's the Taliban infiltrating Afghan forces. What's going on if we know, and does it make a difference?
PERRY: We don't know and it doesn't make a difference. Let's roll it back. At this point in the mission, the mission is to train up the Afghans, both their police, and their army, and their sort of paramilitary police community. A lot of contact between Americans, marines, and the U.S. Army soldier, and the Afghans. These killings, these insider killings are crimes of opportunity, as they say, and is there a growing amount of opportunity for these to occur. Also, remember this is a violent, ill-educated society, with a lot of use of gun play, one Afghan to another. One figure that was published this year said that in the time that there have been 40 killings, Afghans killing American troops, there have been something like 55 Afghan on Afghan, one Afghan soldier taking it in for another and killing him quite possibly with a weapon supplied by the United States taxpayer. It's a violent society, we've given them weaponry, and this is the downside of that policy.
SAUER: JW had a comment?
AUGUST: Yeah, well, I had a question. Undoubtably the surge worked in Iraq. Bush put more troops in there, and it seemed to turn the battle. But our current president did the surge, and I don't think you could say that it's been a success. Why do you think, Tony, is the surge a success, not a success? What is the difference between the two surges?
PERRY: The difference is the difference in the two wars. In Iraq, for example, the Marines as part of the surge were sent to al Anbar province, which is cheek and jowl with Baghdad. Things changed there. People who had been adverse to the Americans, the sheiks, came over to the more thanes for various reasons. So there was an influence, I believe. Not the same in Afghanistan. Helmand province where the Marines have been is a long way, physically, culturally, every other way from Kabul. In fact, there's even been a very tough book written by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a friend of mine who's a Washington post editor and reporter, and one of the best. And he has decided that what happened was the Marines and the army were sent the wrong place.
PERRY: And while we have had casualties and we have had some success in Helmand and in Kandahar, it's not connected to the bigger battle. And the real problem was not the tribalism of the Afghans but the tribalism in the Pentagon. The tribalism between the army and the Marine Corps, they've always been at lagger heads, and lack of cohesion in the White House. Very scholarly book, very deeply reported, and I don't know enough to refute his thesis.
AUGUST: I heard him on NPR, man and he had me steaming when it was over. It sounds like they weren't listening to the guys on the ground on this issue.
SAUER: Well, let me ask about that book. You mentioned the White House. From what I've read among the president's advisors, the vice president was dead set against that surge.
PERRY: That is true. From what we know, Biden was always against that. Richard Holbrooke, he wanted to cut a deal, a veteran diplomat who had done yeoman work in Vietnam and Bosnia. But possessed of such an ego that he couldn't get along with other people. And ego clashes in the White House between Biden and other people, Holbrooke is now dead. According to Rajiv, that really scuttled any decent chance to cut a deal with the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, take your pick, and stop the killing. That's his thesis.
SAUER: Let's talk for a minute about what Americans at home are not talking about, the war in Afghanistan. What do polls show now regarding support for this war?
PERRY: 2/3 of the American public, and this has been static for the last 24-36 month, 2/3 of the American public don't think it's worth it, think we ought to be home, think it's a misadventure. However, there's a 5-letter word that is missing here. And that word is Draft. Without a military draft, this is not an issue. Name one politician who has lost his job because he backed this policy. You can't. Name who's heading the big protest in downtown San Diego this week. There isn't one. That's the difference.
SAUER: There were some several years ago, but there haven't been in a long time.
PERRY: A couple years ago, and I went to them as a journalist --
SAUER: I did too.
PERRY: And they tended to be quite candid, freeze dried folks out of the '60s.
SAUER: Yeah, you're right.
PERRY: But the American public has checked out.
SAUER: We have had two dozen debates throughout the Republican primary season. We're going to have three presidential debates, a vice presidential debate coming up in the next few week, and yet nobody in this campaign it seems to me has mentioned this war. We are at war!
PERRY: Well, Mitt Romney pretty much has sidled up to what his current policy is, he says we have to be there through the end of 2014. Well, that's the president's policy. He nicks it around the edges a lot bit, but basically they're in agreement on this. So without clash, where's the debate?
SAUER: What's happened to the antiwar movement? Are you surprised there aren't more folks out there? It really is hard to scare up anybody.
PERRY: Without a draft, it just doesn't resonate with the American people. 1% is serving, the rest of us are free to go to Horton plaza.
SAUER: Many stories have been condition about the startling suicide rate among veterans, post traumatic stress disorder rates, and other struggles. Has this war along with the one in Iraq broken the army and Marine Corps in some way?
PERRY: I think it has stressed certainly the army. It has stressed army reserves, national guard, folks who never thought they would deploy. It has stressed all the military. Military is still performs as far as we can tell, magnificently, attempting to succeed in this mission. And let's get it out here, you cannot determine from casualty figures, bad counts, if you will, who is winning or losing a war. I thought we learned that in Vietnam.
PERRY: There are just too many metrics. You can be losing people, and we are, and still succeeding in your mission. You can be casualty-free and failing in your mission. It's enormously complex. And the metric of casualties is just not a good way to determine who is winning. Maybe it's a perfectly good way to decide whether you personally think this thing is worth it. Maybe a political decision. But a tactical decision? Unfortunately that's why people have to go over there with notebooks and cameras and bring the story home to us. You cannot sit in your easy chair and just say, well, the numbers show me this.
AUGUST: Let's say we're sitting, doing this ten years from now, and Mark has grayer hair, and it's been ten years since we've been out of Afghanistan. What kind of Afghanistan will we be seeing then?
PERRY: You know, the one analysis I like was by one of the think tank boys who said when we pull out our troops, the drones are going to continue to fly, what we may see when we leave is akin to Columbia when they were at the height of their war with the drug cartels. That is to say a semifunctioning government, a government friendly to the United States but with a hell of a battle on their hands. In Columbia, with a lot of our head under and over the table, they seem to have pushed back on the drug cartels. The question is will the legitimate Afghan government, I put legitimate in quotation marks given how they function politically, that succeeds Hamid Karzai, will they be able to push back sufficiently? That's the $64 million question, and that's why the U.S. marines and army is training up the Afghans as best we can to get them ready for the days when frankly we take off the training wheels and set them off by themselves.
SAUER: Vince from Clairemont, go ahead.
PERRY: I'm an old retired Navy master chief. Came back a little scarred around the edges. And I used to wonder about why is there not a real serious voice at some level to reach out to stop all war? What's your feeling?
SAUER: Well, you did have on the Republican side, the libertarian side, you had presidential candidate, Mr. Paul, who made that point explicitly, not many others.
PERRY: I haven't heard anybody for an immediate pullout except possibly Ron Paul, but he tends to have a one size fits all answer that doesn't really resonate very well. Would that there was such a person! Speaking whatever language to end all wars, and help us beat these guns into plow sheers and all that. Don't see it happening, not in our lifetimes.
SAUER: Michael from La Jolla. Go ahead.
PERRY: May question is sort of along the same lines. What I would really like to know is just exactly what it is as a country we're supposed to be gaining from this war, especially the average person, the average taxpayer. The economy is going so poorly, I'm not a Ron Paul fan, but he did make a lot of sense with all the money we pour into this stuff. And there doesn't seem to be any gain for the country.
SAUER: Thank you, Michael. We've never gone into Afghan, never were there, would we be much better off?
PERRY: Would that I could tell you that.
[ LAUGHTER ]
PERRY: And I'm by no means any spokesman for any certain policy. But the reigning thought that both parties seem to have bought into is that we need to stay in that region. And when I say that, Afghanistan and Pakistan. A San Diego state professor said this thing is a dog with fleas. It's going to be there, are and the more we shake it, the more the fleas jump out. You have an unstable with nuclear weapon, all over the country, and in Afghanistan, you have a country that could be the place that the next Osama Bin Laden decides to set up shop and reek havoc on the Americans. He could do the same thing in Somalia or Yemen. In the ten years since we went in, the world has changed. Suddenly Yemen, for example. So it's devilishly easy to start a war, they'll tell you, very difficult to end one.
SAUER: And I've read some criticism certainly that since World War II with a couple of notable exceptions we haven't done wars very well. Vietnam was certainly an example. And maybe despite our great might and the treasure that we devote to it, and the effort and the time and the debate in this country, maybe we should just step back and rethink wars and occupations in general.
AUGUST: Well, a great American general, Dwight Eisenhower, warned about the industrial military complex. And I'm afraid that's what's feeding all of this and has been for some time.
PERRY: The one war we did rather well was the cold war. We unleashed our best weapon of all, our economy. And we bankrupted the fellows there and moved on. But it's quite devilishly complex, when you go in, why you go in, how you get out, how much nation-building do you do?
SAUER: And a lot of those questions were debated certainly before we went into Iraq because we had more time. We didn't go in until March of 2003, if I recall. This was just the short time, the blood was shot after 911, we were going to go in and drain the swarm, we were going to chase our foe and --
AUGUST: Kill Bin Laden and maybe sure the Taliban never come back.
SAUER: And there was a long lead time into the Iraq situation, which is obviously a completely different dynamic.
PERRY: You mentioned World War II, and it does bear noting that all the things we're saying in Afghanistan, or most of them, we saw in World War II. Disputes between the army and the Marine Corps, debatable strategic decision that cost enormous lives. Unreliable allies, for example. Difficult foreign leaders. Degall, anyone? All of these metrics have been around before.
SAUER: War is war.
PERRY: War is war. And the last man who doesn't make a big mistake wins. We're trying to be the last, NATO-led force, is trying to be the last that doesn't make a big mistake in Afghanistan.
FIGUEROA: Was there, following the death of Bin Laden, wasn't there any sort of public shift in now we can leave, now we can get out?
PERRY: The public who have studied this say that the White House, the Obama White House, really did scale down what it wanted. It redefined what victory is to make it achievable and to get us out. We'll see if it works.
SAUER: Welcome to the Roundtable. I'm Mark Sauer. Tony Perry, JW August, and Teri Figueroa of the North County Times. Two recent shocking homicides were back in the news this week, a boy, aimed 10 at the time, murdered a playmate. The boy's name is not revealed because of his age was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. That was actually a stabbing death. I misspoke a moment ago. And first the killing of 19-year-old Diana Gonzalez caused a loud outcry among many in the San Diego community. She was attending a class at San Diego City college on the evening of October 12th, 2010. Police say her estranged husband, Armando Perez, accosted and killed her inside a men's restroom, stab herd to death and fled to Mexico. JW, Diana Gonzalez filed a restraining order against her husband before this killing. He had been arrested.
AUGUST: Well, the bottom line is the bottom line is the District Attorney's Office received a complaint from the young lady that he kidnapped and raped her, and they chose not to act on it. And that's all the brouhaha. It goes on and on about how much they've learned about it. But it's interesting that we can't get details on exactly what was said by this lady to the District Attorney's Office that made them determine we don't have enough to do the case. What was said? I would like to know what was said. I think the public has a right to know what did you look at and dismiss as not reliable information? Was she drunk when she talked to you? Did she stand you up on interviews and not show up? Was she unreliable?
SAUER: That's the thing you wonder about, unreliable.
AUGUST: Bonnie is always going to hide behind it's an investigation, it's ongoing, we can't talk about it. But given all the media interest and the tragedy of what happened to that woman, in this case I think the DA should come clean and say this is what we looked at this, is why we made the decision.
SAUER: After this courtroom appearance earlier this the week, she did have a press conference. And she responded to some degree.
AUGUST: Well, I wasn't at the press conference. I didn't hear what I wanted to hear. I was just reading excerpts and talking to my reporter when is they came back. But basically it's look at all the stuff we've done since. We're working closely with the domestic violence unit, and I'm doing a better job of evaluating these situation when is they come up, and hopefully they've done that.
SAUER: In hindsight here, and of course she did as you say, take a lot of criticism since this tragedy. The question that -- I mean, why isn't this a more public matter? I know the whole pending case and that, is that a skirt to hide behind? Or at some point do you have to file some court paper and say this is what went into this decision?
AUGUST: I think transparency is good in the criminal justice system. That's what it's all about. What was the standard of proof in this case? What did the DA look at to make this decision? There's two levels of this. One where there's probable cause where you don't have enough to convince a jury, but you think there's a strong suspicion you've got something going on here. Why didn't they lock this guy up under probable cause? Then that's the other level of the more higher standard, there is sufficient evidence to bring this thing to trial and convict this guy. They chose even under probable cause to dismiss her concerns. And I want to know why. I would be very interested. And you're right. Somebody needs to maybe litigate it, force them to tell. But they may argue, well, ongoing investigations, we don't need to know.
SAUER: Let's talk for a moment about what did happen in court. Mr. Perez was finally extradited, and he stood up in an outburst and said I'm guilty. Pretty dramatic.
AUGUST: And the cousin yelling at him too, you can't plead guilty at that particular hearing. And what is he pleading guilty of? I can goes.
SAUER: And this doesn't help in the court of public opinion. It didn't help with Bonnie Dumanis and what we've been talking about.
PERRY: And we might also tell our listeners here that a number of media agencies are litigating, have been litigating for some period of time to get the search warrants for the Fallbrook marine wife murder case.
PERRY: And it's been back and forth and back and forth. These search warrants that in most cases should be public are public, have been public under her predecessors. The District Attorney's Office is fighting tooth and nail to keep from us. I think there has been a tendency of this district attorney to take as her motivating power the sensibilities and sensitivities of victim families. Which sounds fine. But when it starts to be keeping information from the public from a public proceeding, it becomes another thing. In the case that JW is talking about, the city college stabbing, there I think it's just CYA. And they're going to make judgment calls that are going to come back and bite them, particularly this kind. There probably were case like this with Dumanis's predecessor and his. These domestic situations are complex. How many murders have we seen where the second paragraph of the story is she had a restraining order against him? It happens, it's dreadful. I'm not arguing against transparency. I'm with JW and into the badlands and beyond with transparency. But in reality, these things are going to happen as long as we have a large, complex society in San Diego.
SAUER: Quintin, you're with the panel.
NEW SPEAKER: My concern with Dumanis is maybe she does things to CYA because she was running for mayor. It seems that she's greenlighted every police shooting almost and backed away from controversial ones, and I believe you should err on the side of caution in domestic violence cases. Thank you very much.
SAUER: All right, thanks for that call.
AUGUST: Well, even before the mayor's race, as Tony said, Bonnie is concerned with the public image and the department's image, and if I'm her, I would probably feel the same way. But I'm not. I'm a journalist. And I really think there needs to be more transparency. They hide a lot behind the law. And maybe a lot of people don't know that the media, we're very competitive with each other, but we are because of the cost of litigation, we have teamed up, the UT, the LA Times, the New York Times, are the television stations, the television stations, we pool our money to fight to open these records. And I think the District Attorney knows we don't have deep pocket, and may make it as tough on us as possible. Nobody puts an attorney on retainer for media organizations anymore. We don't have that kind of money.
SAUER: Right. Now you mentioned the media working together and all. We had another news organization, and they'll remain nameless here. But what is the purpose? This was a channel Perez gave an interview to after the arraignment. What is the purpose of giving an interview like that? A self-confessed murderer, why give him a microphone?
AUGUST: Am I supposed to answer that?
[ LAUGHTER ]
PERRY: Pardon me for standing up for television, but I watched that interview, and I said that's real interesting. That might even be news! They had the gumption to get that interview, and more power to them. You're right. Is it T does bring up issues of allowing people of low morals like we think Mr. Perez is to have access. On the other hand, I don't think he did himself any good by claiming, well, I have anger issues. He started off with the I'm guilty, but then said it's more difficult, and I have anger issues and I didn't mean to drag her body interest the bathroom. I think people can judge for themselves the veracity of that kind of comment.
AUGUST: That's why I say you do it. It's up to the public to decide. The guy speaks, somebody gives him a platform, you listen to him, and you make your decision.
PERRY: We sent a reporter that talked to a socialite, and she said, yep, I killed my lawyer husband, and we put it on the front page. Jailhouse interviews are --
SAUER: That goes back a ways. Teri?
FIGUEROA: It makes me wonder too if not having charged him for the first incident, how much that really has a chilling effect on other women who, especially spouses, who have rape complaint, who have domestic violence complaints? They are incredibly difficult cases.
PERRY: Now we have that lady in Carlsbad, she seemed to have -- we think took matters into her own hands to dispatch a violent spouse. I'm not taking sides. But one has to ask, did she think that getting a restraining order wouldn't work?
FIGUEROA: It could have been a violent argument. Who knows?
PERRY: We'll see.
AUGUST: Tough calls for the criminal justice system on both sides.
SAUER: Well, there was as I mentioned at the outset, another sad case in the news. Of a stab-year-old boy who stabbed his best friend to death. He's now 11 and was found incompetent to stand trial. Why did the judge say that he was incompetent?
AUGUST: Well, because he -- he had enough mental ability to figure out how to do the crime. He did not understand the effects the crime would have. What would happen if he killed his young playmate. And that's the separation right there. Of
SAUER: That's the legal definition of do you understand consequences and right and wrong and at ten years old, that's understandable. Nobody fought it on either side.
PERRY: And the shrinks who had been let loose on him, they came back and said he's not competent. Fetal alcohol syndrome.
SAUER: I wanted to get into that. What were some of the details?
PERRY: A horrible situation that gave rise to anger and all sorts of things like that.
AUGUST: His mother's on booze and meth, gives birth to him? That poor kid was doomed from the moment he --
PERRY: And the mother of the victim I think is not crying for vengeance either.
AUGUST: What a wonderful lady.
PERRY: A very broad-minded view that one life has already been lost, let's foot trash another one needlessly.
AUGUST: I hope I have that courage if I'm ever in a situation like that.
FIGUEROA: How long will the little boy be in custody? Do they have to come back and revisit his case?
AUGUST: They do something called a 300 petition. They're going to ask for it. Then the Court will decide the control of the rest of his life. And they'll put him in a setting, a closed setting where he can't -- he's not out in public, and provide counseling and that's the next step. But I don't know how long it'll be. I don't think anybody knows.
PERRY: But he could be brought back, like the adult system, at some point.
SAUER: Maybe he's declared competent.
PERRY: Oh, now he's competent. It happens in the adult system every so often. They send him to mental hospitals and every year they look at him, and at some point, you may have to stand trial. As a juvenile, he may have to stand trial. And then the fall is, until you're 25, I think.
SAUER: All right. Now, this boy, all the adults who knew him reported these anger issue, behavioral issues. He just dealt with them from birth, apparently. So let's broaden this. What about any 10-year-old or 11-year-old on this case? Do we as a society consider them competent to stand trial in any circumstance?
FIGUEROA: As the mother of a 9-year-old, I cannot imagine that he would have any idea what really happened. He may understand death from video games. But he has no concept of what that really means. Add to that fetal alcohol syndrome, an environment where he may not have understood those consequences --
SAUER: Right, and if he was acting out and had anger situations and that kind of behavior for so long a time, then you wonder what the consequences were all along, what does he learn along the way? That's interesting. You look at your 9-year-old, and you can relate immediately to this child at this age.
FIGUEROA: Absolutely. Gosh, that whole case was just so incredibly heartbreaking. It makes me look at all of his little friends askance.
PERRY: And now we have to ask how well is the mental health system of the State of California equipped, funded to deal with this child? What are we going to get when he's back on the street at some age some someone who has been brutalized by the system or neglected by the system? That's really the scary part. He's going to be on the street some day. Even if he takes a fall until he's 25. Well, he's on the street at 25. What are we going to get? What's going to be going on in his head? Then we're going to have to ask ourselves do we fund these kinds of systems well enough, or in our zeal to keep our taxes as low as possible, are we essentially allowing conditions that these walking timebombs are everywhere in our community?
SAUER: I did want to bring up this shooting by a deputy this week of a woman in her own backyard. JW?
AUGUST: Longtime officer, they had a call to a neighborhood. Some guy was prowling around with a black cover over his head, scary, late at night.
SAUER: So it was a hot prowl situation.
AUGUST: There was a door open into a backyard, the officer goes in, a woman living in the house comes out because she hears the noise, she startled the officer, and the officer shoots. And channel 10 has been trying to talk to the sheriff's department to explain to us what sort of training they have for this kind of a surprise moment. They haven't wanted to do it. I did check this officer's history all the way back to Sacramento, and he's a clean guy. He has no issues. And I'm betwixtt on this one. If somebody came up to me in the dark, and I had a gun, I might shoot them myself!
PERRY: Take what happened in Hillcrest last Saturday. Call comes in, man screaming incoherently, threatening people, he's only half dressed, the police get out there, they see him raising a hatchet, and they put him down. They put him down with a taser and the hatchet turned out --
AUGUST: Oh, this was no taser situation.
PERRY: Well, they put this fellow down, and his hatchet turned out to be a NERF hatchet. He's lucky they didn't put a nine mill in him. But we send these people out and ask them to make these split-second decisions.
AUGUST: That was a tough one.
SAUER: Welcome back to the Roundtable. I'm Mark Sauer. I'm joined by Tony Perry, JW August, and Teri figgero A. Starting on September 1st, the 5,100 inmates in San Diego County jails will no longer be allowed to receive letters except from attorneys or the Court. If you want correspond, you'll have to send them a postcard. Along the lines of having a good time, wish you were here. Teri, tell us why the sheriff's department created this policy. What's wrong with letters?
FIGUEROA: Contraband. It's all about contraband, all about security, that's what they say. They have 5,100 inmate, and they found -- in 2010, there was about 73 cases of contraband. That number has been dropping. This year, about 54. Primarily drugs. They say weapons, but it's primarily drugs. People put black tar heroin in the envelope or under the stamp. So the sheriff's department is saying this is just a security issue.
SAUER: Tell us what the situation is legally. They can open these envelopes, search the envelopes. Can they not?
FIGUEROA: They can and they do. It's kind. A nighttime work. Once the inmates have gone to bed and the lights are out, they sit and open all of the letters. And they scan for key words, for words that might be, you know, signals to riots or something. But then when you get a letter from your attorney, they open it in front of you. They don't read it, but they open those and shake it out. So the mail was already getting opened. I think the question has been why now? What is the change? Essentially what they're saying is that they kind of took a greenlight from a Ventura county case. Ventura county instituted a policy like this in 2009. Some inmates challenged it, and in January when the Court gave the sheriff's department the thumbs up for their policy, the San Diego sheriff's department had been watching that case. And they said, okay, now we're going to start vetting it.
SAUER: When was that?
FIGUEROA: 2009 is when they instituted the policy, it was challenged and the port upheld it in 2012, January this year.
SAUER: Since then, we have seen a lot of state inmates come back to the county jails with our whole situation on cutting costs at the state level. I wonder if that dynamic plays into this at all. Maybe you're got more hardened criminals doing longer time at the jails.
FIGUEROA: Absolutely asked about that. That change went into effect last October. Of the sheriff's department says they had this on their radar long before that. However, they didn't institute the policy after realignment. But they say this is entirely about having gotten that green light out of another California case.
SAUER: Let me invite our listeners to join the conversation. JW?
AUGUST: Well, does it take any kind of special training to open these envelopes up and check them out? Do these guys have to have some kind of classes or something?
FIGUEROA: I don't know about classes, but I do know that there is some training. The sheriff's department credits the drop in contraband to extra training. They have folks come in and train the deputies on what to look for,
PERRY: Tell me about e-mail. Can I e-mail any prisoner I want?
FIGUEROA: You can e-mail anyone who's in county jail. They can't e-mail you back. They have to do snail-mail. And they can send letters out it's letters in what's been the problem.
SAUER: So they can send contraband out.
[ LAUGHTER ]
FIGUEROA: What they have left. And really, it's the letters coming in that have been the problem. And that's what the ACLU is having a problem with. They're saying you can't -- how do you write a dear John letter in a postcard? How do you tell your brother that your mother is dieing in a postcard?
PERRY: But you have visits. How often can I visit my friend who's awaiting trial?
FIGUEROA: Two visits a week
PERRY: And if it's my loved one --
FIGUEROA: No touching.
PERRY: Can I bring my kids?
FIGUEROA: Once a month. I know at las Colinas, they have contact with kids and moms, but it's rare and very supervised. And I've seen some of those. But primarily no. It's all through the glass and through the little phone like you see on TV.
SAUER: The ACLU, you mentioned Ventura, they've raised the issue here. What's their chief complaint here about the sheriff instituting this?
FIGUEROA: No. 1, they're saying this really infringes on free speech. That's problematic for a number of reasons. No. 1, it's constitutional. And that's the thing about the constitution. It applies to everybody. And 42% I think was the last count that I say of the inmates in county jail are pretrial. So they haven't been convicted of anything yet.
SAUER: 42%. That's significant.
FIGUEROA: And it used to be higher before all the state prisoners started staying in the county jails.
SAUER: But this policy will apply to everybody.
FIGUEROA: Everybody. And the ACLU is also saying that studies show that you have -- that significant and substantial relationships with your family, if you're an inmate, if you can have those, keep them going while you're incarcerated then you have a better chance of success once you get out.
SAUER: We've got a caller who wants to join us from San Marcos. Go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: I would like to say, it's about time that they started doing that. It's too much gang-related stuff going on. If you're going to write someone, it better be something worth sharing with everybody.
PERRY: Do you see litigation coming out of this, Teri? What's the chances that one. Those San Diego judges, former prosecutors, are going to overturn a policy like this?
FIGUEROA: There is that. The ACLU, I've spoken to their national chapter. And they have brought legal challenges in other places and won. And have won attorneys' fees. Those are states like Colorado, Washington. But here, the Ventura case was not an ACLU challenge, that was inmates and the Public Defender's Office. I contacted the PD's office in this case, and they essentially said we really respect sheriff Gore. We trust him, we take them at their word that this is just about security, that this is not --
PERRY: But the ACLU would have additional legal firepower at their hands. They might see it as a national issue. Do you see them litigating? Are they chomping at the bit?
FIGUEROA: I don't know about chomping at the bit. I do know that they have a meeting set up with the sheriff's department. They may have already had it. But they do plan, and the sheriff's department says yes, we're going to sit down with them. They have a pretty good working relationship.
SAUER: And there data out of Ventura that shows this works? There's not as many drugs when we sweep? Have you seen that? What effect has this had?
FIGUEROA: I don't know yet. I do know that the ACLU says this is one of those fads that's kind of sweeping across the jail. And the ACLU director in DC told me that the first one to do this was sheriff Arpaio.
PERRY: Ah! Of course. And the feds are having a devilishly difficult time getting old sheriff Joe to modify. So the sheriff has a lot of power, political and legal.
SAUER: Once you're in that jail, you're in that jail. That's a nasty sound to hear that door clang behind you. The caller's point again, he said that it's about time here. Let's revisit those numbers. How much contraband are we really talking about? It's a very small percentage.
FIGUEROA: It is. If you've got 5,100 prisoners -- prosecutors filed 73 cases involving contraband in the jails. In 2011, the number dropped from 73 to 66. And so far this year, they filed 35-case, which puts them on track for about 54 or 55.
PERRY: Trying to smuggle drugs? Hypodermic needles? Weapons?
FIGUEROA: I asked about that, and I always get rerouted back to drugs. So I don't know. And when I asked about needle, I was told about a 1974-case in which a deputy was frisking a person who was not an inmate and was poked by a hypodermic needle and ended up contracting I think help C and passed away eight years later.
SAUER: A little bit of a different situation.
FIGUEROA: It was.
PERRY: Is this a labor union thing? How about the deputy sheriff's association? Is this something they've pushed for for safety for their members?
FIGUEROA: I don't know the answer to that. I do know that the sheriff's department has been watching the Ventura case. They had have been, like I said, this is a fad moving across the country. And they have been interested in it, and they said they vetted it.
PERRY: If I got locked out downtown in the federal courthouse, can I get letters?
FIGUEROA: You can! The federal prisons and the state prisons do not have such policies.
FIGUEROA: The ACLU says they can't think of any state prisons across the country where it's postcards only.
FIGUEROA: It's only a jail's issue at this point.
PERRY: That's strange, isn't it? I always think of state prisons as pretty tough places, and federal prisons even more so.
SAUER: You think the safeguard would be there.
AUGUST: I heard somebody, I won't mention who, in the system who said this is -- they're just getting bad chappy on this. It's the term that's used for when they want to be -- strut their stuff and show how tough they can be. I don't know if that's the case or not. And it's interesting, the last person I think got busted for this was actually a sheriff, guy working in the jail who was sneaking in contraband, somebody in law enforcement. And how about the trustees that work there? Are they slipping stuff in? Are you no longer going to have trustees going out? Are you going to make them strip down in the shower and give them a full body search? Is that what else is coming?
FIGUEROA: I don't know. Now I have a list of questions to ask sheriff gore.
[ LAUGHTER ]
SAUER: There'll be some follow-up stories on this.
PERRY: Gore comes on very grandfatherly, very professional. But is he a hard-nose to prisoners?
FIGUEROA: Everyone seems to really trust him and say they respect him, and they're taking him at face value.
SAUER: He booted the I.C.E. agents of the substation. We're going to have to leave it there.