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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

FBI Probe of Jail Welcome

June 23, 2002

The Orange County Board of Supervisors faces tough questions in the wake of its decision to pay $650,000 to survivors of an inmate who died from head injuries shortly after being booked into the Orange County Jail.

Supervisors and the Sheriff's Department have declined to comment on the settlement to be paid to two children of Gilbert Garcia, a 32-year-old inmate who died June 1, 1998, two days after being carried out of the County Jail on a stretcher after a struggle with deputies.

A coroner's report indicated that Garcia died of internal bleeding caused by a skull fracture, and Garcia's survivors maintain that a grainy jail surveillance tape proves that the inmate was mistreated

The district attorney's office, which investigated the death, concluded that Garcia exhibited symptoms of a head injury when he was booked into Orange County Jail on May 30.

The district attorney cleared the Sheriff's Department of wrongdoing but has said it would review any new evidence in the case.

Garcia's family continues to allege that his civil rights were violated, and the FBI is still investigating what happened inside the jail--one of five similar probes into claims of brutality inside the jail. The settlement, approved by a 4-1 vote, adds to existing concerns about jail brutality and civil-rights abuses.

Between 1991 and 2000, the county paid $445,000 in taxpayer funds for injury claims filed on behalf of inmates.

The previous highest settlement was $100,000 for a case involving a 43-year-old inmate who died in 1995 after fighting with deputies.

We welcome the FBI's continued involvement because a federal investigation seems more likely to produce an independent review of Garcia's death and other cases in which county investigations into inmate charges of abuse have arisen.

County residents deserve an investigation of charges made by inmates and explanations offered by deputies.

It's not an easy task given the charged environment inside a jail, where the potential for violence is omnipresent.

The tense atmosphere demands, however, that those charged with running the facilities ensure that inmates are not mistreated.

Several years ago, a grand jury underlined the potential for serious problems when it cited an "oppressive and threatening atmosphere" inside the main county jail that jurors blamed on a "vicious cycle of mutual antagonism and harassment between inmates and deputies."

The FBI needs to determine whether excessive force was used in the Garcia case and other incidents in which inmates have alleged abuses.

The public must have confidence that sheriff's deputies are in control of the jail, and that staffing levels and training are sufficient to produce a humane and safe environment for inmates and deputies alike.

The alternative is the potential for more allegations of violation of prisoners' rights, and more settlements and court judgments borne by taxpayers.

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