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Jailers Track Litigious Inmate on Videotape

Prisons: To stem lawsuits alleging mistreatment, deputies roll tape when he exits cell. Critics say increased use of cameras may violate rights.

May 07, 2000|JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whenever Andrew Lesky leaves his cell at the County Jail in Santa Ana, three sheriff's deputies trail closely behind him with a video camera rolling. They follow him everywhere: to and from the showers, during visits to the recreation yard, in meetings with his attorney and family--even on trips to the doctor.

Why?

Lesky has filed more than 20 complaints and lawsuits against the Sheriff's Department alleging mistreatment. And now, deputies are creating a legal record of all encounters they have with the inmate.

The aggressive surveillance, which has raised questions about privacy, is meant to refute any future claims. But Lesky charges that it amounts to retaliation for speaking out.

"They're trying to break me," he said.

The practice of using video cameras, while still rare, is gaining wider acceptance in other jail systems. In Los Angeles, each county jail facility has its own portable camera. Authorities said it's necessary because of the large number of what officials insist are false complaints filed by inmates.

"The video camera has a calming effect most of the time," said Los Angeles sheriff's Sgt. Mike Parker. "Certainly, the taxpayers benefit by having lawsuits that are dismissed without foundation."

But some legal scholars said such measures threaten to erode what little privacy inmates have.

Thomas G. Blomberg, a criminology professor at Florida State University and expert on jail conditions, said the practice is so new that he doesn't believe a court has yet ruled on its legality.

In recent years, courts have expanded the authority of jailers, but Blomberg said the practice of trailing only inmates who file numerous grievances enters new territory.

"I think that it's overkill," he said.

In Orange County, the Sheriff's Department maintains that Lesky's flurry of legal challenges has left officials with little choice but to record his interactions with deputies.

"If people like Mr. Lesky make false allegations, we have to video everything," said Assistant Sheriff Rocky Hewitt. "We have to document everything."

The action follows a number of lawsuits filed in recent months by inmates alleging mistreatment in the Orange County jail system, one of the country's most crowded.

The Sheriff's Department already has scores of mounted cameras throughout the jail system. Deputies say footage from those cameras refutes some of those claims, though officials declined to make the footage public, citing advice from county attorneys.

Hewitt said the department wants more such cameras so it can record "every inch" of area used by inmates. But until funding comes in for such a project, the county will rely on hand-held cameras to follow inmates such as Lesky.

Hewitt and other officials have denied Lesky's numerous allegations, which range from lack of television access to physical harassment. They also decry the drain on resources caused by the videotaping, though officials said they could not provide the estimated cost of the operation.

But in the long run, they said, they hope the practice will help bring out the truth and deter frivolous and false complaints, which prove costly and time-consuming to investigate.

"He was just making so many false allegations against our deputies . . . we decided, 'You know what, he can't argue if we videotape everything,' " said Capt. Catherine Zurn.

Zurn said she believes the footage will disprove any future claims Lesky makes and might stop his allegedly threatening behavior toward staff and inmates.

Monitoring varies from week to week, depending on Lesky's schedule, deputies said. Court appearances and frequent visits from his attorney mean more videotaping. Tape rolls only during contact with staff; the camera is off during showers and recreation time, when Lesky is alone.

Such measures, however, prove little about an inmate's treatment, according to Lesky's attorney, Jonathan Slipp.

"I don't think that it proves that they treat him well. They only treat him well when the camera's on," Slipp said. "I think that it's a better use of resources to treat these guys fairly and in accordance with the law."

Lesky is no stranger to Orange County jails. A twice-convicted burglar, he faces new charges of stealing jewelry and cash from homes in Brea and Santa Ana last year and of making terroristic threats against an inmate in March, around the time the videotaping began. He thus faces a possible third strike--and long sentence--under the state's three-strikes law.

Sheriff's officials call him a "prolific and pathological liar" who also has a 1994 conviction for filing a false police report. According to court records, Lesky began filing a series of grievances over treatment five years ago.

Last year, while awaiting trial on the latest charges, Lesky alleged in court filings that deputies were denying him access to his attorney and visits from friends and family. He said he had filed more than 20 grievances without satisfaction.

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