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O.C. Jail Officials Accused of Abuses

Courts: Judge is told inmates are deprived of visits, exercise, access to phones and religious services. Deputies routinely disregard policy, attorney says.

June 27, 2002|MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A prominent civil rights attorney asked a federal judge on Wednesday to find officials at the Orange County Jail in contempt for allegedly violating a 1978 federal court order aimed at stemming overcrowding.

Attorney Richard Herman, who served as the plaintiff attorney as the jails came under federal court review in the 1980s, contends that deputies are routinely disregarding jail policy, resulting in abuses at the jail. In papers, he alleges that a "code of silence" exists that effectively means that jail deputies--not their supervisors--run the jails.

Inmates allege that they are deprived of visits from family and legal counsel, outdoor exercise, access to telephones and religious services.

The accusations come as the FBI is probing five allegations of brutality in the jail. Last month, the Board of Supervisors agreed to pay $650,000--the largest settlement for a brutality suit in county history--to the family of a Garden Grove man who died while in custody.

Sheriff's officials denied any wrongdoing in that case, asserting that the inmate died of a head wound he suffered before being taken into custody.

Sheriff's Department officials as well as county attorneys declined to speak on the suit's specific accusations Wednesday, saying it's against county policy to discuss pending litigation.

"The Orange County jail system ranks among the best," said Sheriff's Department spokesman Jon Fleischman. "When you look at the aggregate of amounts paid out in settlements and compare that to other major jails in the country, it's significantly less."

Two years ago, Herman concluded in court papers that Sheriff Mike Carona and top department officials were making strides and expressed optimism that conditions would improve. "I've been working with the Sheriff's Department for several years on cleaning up the jails and we've reached an impasse," Herman said Wednesday.

Herman said jail deputies who break the rules are rarely reported to their superiors. As a result, he said, deputies can create their own rules for running the jail.

Many of the alleged abuses occur during the jail-intake process, according to the suit, when many inmates are crowded into specific cells as they are directed through the booking process.

While the court order requires that inmates be given seats in cells, Herman says some must stand because there are not enough seats.

Four inmates named in the suit complained that they were discouraged from exercising by guards who would "trash their stuff" while they did so.

While the court order requires the jail to provide inmates with meal times of 15 minutes, inmates insist they are sometimes given only five minutes to eat, Herman said.

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