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Santa Clara County inmate brawl is captured on Costco cameras personally purchased by sheriff

A massive brawl that erupted among inmates inside the troubled Santa Clara County jail Thursday was captured on surveillance equipment installed a day earlier after Sheriff Laurie Smith had purchased the cameras with her personal credit card.

Smith made the purchase after learning that it would cost $20 million and take two years to get the surveillance equipment installed in the jail.

“She felt that [estimate] was ridiculous and not practical,” sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. James Jensen said.

So, Smith went to Costco on Wednesday and purchased the 12 cameras and a DVR for about $741 as a trial run. The county’s construction crew installed the system in the Main Jail in San Jose.

Hours after the crew wrapped up the installation in the jail’s module 4A Thursday afternoon, a fight broke out between two inmates in the same area.

At least 30 inmates were out in the maximum security module when the brawl started and snowballed, Jensen said. The module houses inmates suspected of committing serious crimes as well as of offenses while in jail.

It is unclear what sparked the fight, but Jensen said it erupted between Latino and black inmates. Some of the inmates involved in the brawl suffered minor injuries.

Sheriff’s officials said the installation of the cameras couldn’t have come at a better time.

“I think it's going to work out excellent,” Jensen said. 

The sheriff requested the installation of surveillance equipment throughout the jail in February. But after learning about the timeline, she wanted an interim solution, so she got a list of camera systems that would work for the jail, Jensen said.

Smith wanted the cameras installed promptly to protect jail staff against any potential false allegations and to benefit inmates, he said.

The jail has been under intense security since the death of Michael Tyree, a mentally ill inmate who was found dead in his cell in August.

A month later, three Santa Clara County sheriff’s jail deputies -- Matthew Farris, Jereh Lubrin and Rafael Rodriguez -- were charged with murder.

Authorities said Farris, Lubrin and Rodriguez radioed that they had found Tyree unresponsive, naked and covered in feces in his sixth-floor cell, and they tried to revive him.

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But sheriff’s investigators said the jail deputies beat him to death.

Smith had said she was disappointed and disgusted by the deputies’ actions.

After Tyree’s death, jail personnel installed more than 100 complaint boxes throughout the facility so inmates have a system to voice their grievances. Previously, inmates had to hand notices of complaints to deputies directly.

For breaking news in California, follow @josephserna on Twitter.

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