The women's section of the Orange County Jail is a rat-infested place where inmates are watched by male guards as they shower, according to declarations filed Wednesday as part of a contempt action against the Sheriff's Department brought by a Sacramento-based prisoners' rights group.
"It's like living in a dungeon," Richard P. Herman, a Laguna Beach attorney representing the Prisoners' Rights Union, said of conditions at the jail. "It's a vermin-infested facility unfit for human habitation. It's not a place you'd ever want to be."
Jon Fleischman, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Department, said department policy prevented him from commenting on the specifics of the case. But, he added, "We stand by our record as one of the best-run jail systems in the country. We will respond to these allegations in court. We ask that members of the public not base their opinions on allegations, but what's proven in a court of law. We have full faith in our jail system."
The declarations, by three female inmates, are part of a larger action filed last month charging the department with contempt for failing to maintain certain court-ordered prisoners' rights, including access to a day room, 15-minute meal periods, time in the chapel, adequate exercise, access to telephones, freedom from racial or ethnic slurs and freedom from violence or the threat of its use.
Wednesday's declarations, filed in the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, specifically contend that the rats in the women's jail are so plentiful that inmates have to swat them with towels or place boxes under the doors of their cells to keep them out--an action that is considered a rules violation for which they are then penalized.
In addition, the declarations said, the women are routinely threatened with violence and observed by male guards while in the showers.
"The bottom line," Herman said, "is that brutality is the system and the jailers aren't willing to give it up. [This action] is about looking at people in the jail as human beings and treating them decently."