Seven years ago, U.S. District Judge William P. Gray, ruling on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, ordered the overcrowded Orange County Jail to provide a bunk each night for every inmate.
It now looks as though that is about to happen. But it has taken another ACLU action and a ruling by Gray last Monday holding the Orange County Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Brad Gates, who operates the jail, in criminal contempt for violating his 1978 order. The earlier order wasn't unreasonable and neither was the judge's finding last Monday. What was unreasonable was the shameless way the supervisors and the sheriff ignored the judge's order and the prisoners' welfare for so long.
Gates may be correct in claiming that he has little control over the flow of inmates through his jail. That depends on how many people the police arrest and the courts convict. And there is no disputing the fact that the jail, which has a capacity of 1,191 and bunk space for 1,530, usually houses a daily population of more than 2,000 prisoners and is woefully overcrowded. But Gates and the supervisors do have some control over the conditions of the lockup and they should have been more aggressive in making prisoner housing more humane.
As Gray noted in calling the jail's living conditions "intolerable," there was no evidence that the sheriff had appeared before the board saying, "Look, I'm under this court order to provide beds for all inmates; you've got to give me money for a temporary facility so I can comply."
The county has been making long-range plans for increasing bed space with a new intake-and-release facility next to the present County Jail and expansion of outlying facilities, but those beds won't be ready for about two years.
The supervisors and the sheriff have been able to get away with giving more immediate jail improvements such a low priority because of the county's conservative and tough law-and-order climate that leaves little public pressure for such improvements. And so the county has made little effort, not only in providing more beds but in seeking the diversion and prisoner release programs other counties pursue in an effort to reduce the number of prisoners confined for less serious crimes.
State statistics show that 43% of the prisoners awaiting trial in the Orange County Jail were charged with misdemeanors. That's one of the highest percentages in the state. And the county still locks up hundreds of prisoners on drunkenness charges, ignoring the reality that alcoholism is a medical problem better and less expensively treated at a detoxification center than in a jail cell.
Until last Monday, when Gray's patience wore thin, there was no real commitment to a search for alternatives to jamming prisoners into every square foot of space at the County Jail. There was no urgency in finally meeting the 7-year-old court order to give each inmate a bed. And there was no pressure on the board to represent the unrepresented, the prisoners, many of whom have not, and may never be, convicted of anything. There is commitment now. We welcome the contempt ruling, not for its punitive effect but for its potential to finally bring to the Orange County Jail the programs and improved conditions that have been needed for so many years.