Orange County sheriff's officials Wednesday met the federal court deadline to reduce the population at the men's jail in Santa Ana to 1,500 prisoners, but only by keeping some inmates in tents.
U.S. District Judge William P. Gray, who was in Orange County on a related matter on the same day, praised county officials for their efforts.
But to meet the deadline, sheriff's officials had to keep inmates in a temporary tent village at the James A. Musick Honor Farm near El Toro. The officials had hoped to have all those inmates housed in a more permanent shelter by Wednesday.
Sheriff Brad Gates' original plan was to transfer inmates from Musick's 320-bed tent village to the new 409-bed modular units on the honor farm. Inmates from the county's main jail in Santa Ana would fill the rest of the 409 beds.
But this week, Gates, fearing he might not meet the deadline, ordered his staff to use both tents and the modular units on the honor farm.
No Choice on Tents
The main jail population, which had been between 1,500 and 1,700 prisoners in recent weeks, totaled 1,420 inmates Wednesday morning. At Musick, there were 247 prisoners at the main facility, 349 in the modular units and 241 still in the tents.
"We had hoped we wouldn't have to keep the tents in use," said Undersheriff Raul Ramos. "But we didn't have any choice."
At a recent press tour of the new modular units, Musick's commander, Capt. Jack De Vereaux, said he would not have enough staff to handle both the modular units and the tents. Ramos said Wednesday that security at the two temporary units was good, but only because many deputies are working overtime.
Most of the inmates who were transferred to the modular units at Musick came from the Theo Lacy branch jail in Orange because the county's policy is to send only sentenced inmates to the honor farm. Inmates from the main jail in Santa Ana were then sent to Theo Lacy.
"We're really not out of the woods on this thing," Ramos said. "Right now, we're just staying even."
Last March, the ACLU brought a contempt action against the county, accusing Gates and the Board of Supervisors of not complying with a 7-year-old order by Gray to reduce overcrowding at the jail.
Gray subsequently found the county supervisors and Gates in criminal contempt. The men's jail, which has an official capacity of 1,191 prisoners, held more than 2,000 men in March, with nearly 500 of them being forced to sleep on the floor.
The four temporary tents and the modular units at Musick, installed at a cost of more than $6 million, were the major steps taken by county officials in an attempt to comply with Gray's orders to reduce overcrowding.
At a hearing in Santa Ana Wednesday, Gray congratulated county officials for meeting his first deadline and said the numerous steps taken to reduce the jail population showed that the county had acted "in good faith."
"Of course, that doesn't mean I'm not going to jump on them on occasion in the future," Gray said.
The judge also chided the ACLU for not moving sooner to bring to his attention that his earlier orders had been ignored.
Gray on Wednesday ordered the county to pay $38,000 in fees and $563 in costs to Richard Herman, the ACLU attorney who brought the action against the county. Gray ordered the county to pay $25,000 for Herman's hours, $3,000 in contingency fees (because Herman took the case without knowing he would get paid) and $10,000 for taking on an unpopular cause.
"It's not easy to take on the government of the county in which you live," Gray said.
$138,000 in Fees
Herman had requested $138,000 in fees, including his work on two other cases involving the jail.
Deputy County Counsel Edward Duran, arguing against Herman's request, conceded that "without the court's intervention, conditions at the jail would not be as good. We know we have to pay something and we are willing to negotiate in good faith with Mr. Herman. But Mr. Herman is not only double-billing, he is triple-billing."
Herman said some of his fees would be donated to the ACLU's effort to get a full-time jail attorney for the Southern California area. The attorney who is in line for that job is John Hagar of Santa Monica. Hagar was in court with Herman Wednesday.
Herman said he was not displeased when he learned that Gates still had to use the tents to meet the judge's deadline.
Next Deadline in April
"As long as the population is down in the main jail (in Santa Ana), it doesn't really matter what has to be done to get there," Herman said.
Gates' next problem will be to meet the April 1 ceiling of 1,400 inmates set by the court. He should get some help by then. A new 180-bed expansion at the Theo Lacy branch jail is expected to be ready in late March.
"But we don't know how many total inmates we will have by then," Ramos said. "We could be right back where we started."