The Orange County Sheriff's Department has doubled the number of days per week the public can visit prisoners in Orange County Jail--a decision that almost restores the visitation time lost because of budget constraints several years ago.
County officials and a civil rights attorney involved in the issue said Tuesday that visiting privileges have been increased from two days to four days after considerable negotiation and the threat of litigation.
"It took us from March, 1992, to March, 1994, to get those days back," said Dick Herman, a private attorney whose work for the American Civil Liberties Union has helped improve jail conditions. "It was a hard-won fight out of the limelight, but it is very important for the prisoners, many of whom are in jail on minor charges."
Under the sheriff's new policy, the public can visit prisoners at the men's and women's facilities Thursday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Orange County Jail used to have five days of visitation per week before Sheriff Brad Gates, faced with a tight budget, decided to scale them back in early 1992.
The reduction subsequently became part of a pending federal civil rights lawsuit involving living conditions in the County Jail system. In that case, however, U.S. District Judge Gary Taylor ruled that two days' visitation did not violate the Constitution.
Despite Taylor's decision, Herman threatened to file another lawsuit in state court, alleging that the reduction violated a state law requiring visits within 24 hours of someone's arrest and a court ruling overturning a no-visitation policy for Los Angeles City Jail.
Deputy County Counsel James L. Turner, the county's attorney in the visitation dispute, said the sheriff has been trying to restore visitation days for the last two years although he is not required to under state law.
Earlier in the dispute, Turner threatened to seek court sanctions against Herman if he filed another lawsuit. A new case would be "frivolous," he said, because there is no state law to support the allegations and Judge Taylor has already ruled that two days' visitation is legal.
"The sheriff has always had a policy of allowing as much visitation for inmates as his budget and staffing would allow," Turner said. "Unfortunately, due to a fiscal crisis, hours of visitation were required to be reduced."