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Abuse at Jail Continues, Lawyer Says

Terms of court order being violated, attorney tells judge. Sheriff says inmates are treated well.

October 31, 2000|JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An attorney involved in the landmark court order that limited overcrowding at Orange County's jails filed a memo to a federal judge Monday complaining that the order is being violated and that some inmates are victims of abuse.

Attorney Richard P. Herman said he wanted to bring the issues to the attention of U.S. District Judge Gary Taylor and offered to launch a fuller investigation of complaint letters sent by inmates to the court.

He praised the Sheriff's Department for trying to deal with problems, but said more must be done. He did not spell out any specific incidents.

"There are incidents of violence, including the pepper spraying of prisoners," Herman wrote. "Physical and psychological abuse are not limited to the Men's Jail and [Intake/Release Center] but are found everywhere [in the jail system]. This is in spite of the heartfelt desire of Sheriff [Mike] Carona and Assistant Sheriff [John 'Rocky'] Hewitt" that there be no abuse.

Herman's memo comes as the Orange County Grand Jury investigates allegations that two deputies beat an inmate last year in the Men's Central Jail. Several civil lawsuits also claim inmates were assaulted by deputies.

Herman said he filed his memo after consulting with defense attorneys and a handful of jail inmates. He said he presented some concerns to Hewitt in recent weeks and that some violations in the court order already have been corrected, such as making sure inmates have a prescribed amount of outdoor exercise and access to law books.

"There are other Sheriff's Departments that don't care," Herman said in an interview. "This is the department that cares but can't shake off the old habits."

Carona said he is working with Herman and others to improve conditions at the jail, but maintained that inmates are being treated well and that violence is at an all-time low.

"There's nothing that leads me to believe that there's widespread abuse in the jail." he said. "I think we run one of the safest jail systems in America. But I am not so Pollyannaish that I don't believe there isn't the potential for problems, and we're looking at that on a daily basis."

Hewitt said use of pepper spray was started about five or six years ago in the jail and has so far proved successful in reducing violence.

"Since we started using pepper spray, the number of assaults of inmates upon inmates has almost come to a halt," he said. "Pepper spray is a great tool to stop assaults, not only inmates on deputies but for inmate upon inmate. We investigate all incidents."

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