On the heels of a County Jail trusty proving himself untrustworthy, Sheriff's Department brass are enacting a change in the long-standing system: Trusties will now be called "inmate workers."
Sheriff's custody chief Barry King, who said no non-nomenclature changes are immediately planned, did declare Tuesday that the traditional title for locked-up laborers is a bit misleading. "Calling them trusties makes it sound like they have special privileges," he said. "Really, they're just normal laborers in a jail environment."
Any way you say it, however, those assigned to the jailhouse work detail have more freedoms than other inmates--and they are expected to be reliable. But on occasion, they abusetheir status.
"The term 'trusty' is a holdover from the old days when trusties were really trusted," said James Owens, a deputy county counsel assigned to the jails. "I don't know if they have those guys in the jail system anymore. . . . There are some people who you wouldn't trust."
In a recent report by a panel of medical experts retained by the U.S. Department of Justice, concerns were expressed about allegations that trusties were abusing mentally ill county inmates.
And last Sunday, a convicted serial rapist--assigned to work as a trusty in the kitchen of Pitchess Detention Center--used his access to take an elevator to the basement, where he tried to escape by prying open a small vent. After a 14-hour manhunt, Pedro Carvajal, who faces life in prison at his sentencing hearing Thursday, was found hiding behind boxes in the jail basement.
There are hundreds of inmates working as trusties throughout the 20,000-inmate County Jail system, performing tasks from serving food to painting walls. According to King, inmates accused of crimes including murder are allowed to serve as trusties.
"People who don't get to hold these jobs are terrorists and child molesters, for their own protection so they don't get abused by other inmates," King said. Also excluded are inmates who have exhibited abusive behavior inside the jail system and those who have either attempted to escape or have escaped in the past.
Otherwise, King said, it's fair game for those who want a work assignment.
That's something that troubles Merrick Bobb, the special counsel to the Board of Supervisors studying problems in the Sheriff's Department.
"Without having examined the [Carvajal case], it strikes me at first blush that a convicted rapist awaiting a possible life sentence should be considered a high escape risk," Bobb said. "The system for classifying inmates needs serious reform. . . . The department needs to examine its criteria for choosing trusties."
There is always room for improvement, King said.
But for now, he added, the department will simply call the inmates workers.
And if they don't work out? "We put them back in cell blocks," King said.