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Orange County | Dana Parsons

Good-Guy Sheriff Can Also End Jail Abuse

November 26, 2003|Dana Parsons

A federal appeals court last week rousted old Orange County ghosts. In ruling that a former jail inmate's lawsuit alleging abuse shouldn't have been dismissed, the court once again summoned phantoms that have been howling for years around the Central Men's Jail.

The thing is, we have a resident ghostbuster.

Who ya gonna call? How about Sheriff Mike Carona?

If anyone could end the perennial complaints about abuse by guards, it would be Carona. About as popular as a public official can be, Carona has built goodwill all along the political spectrum and is welcomed in both the California statehouse and the White House. He's received overwhelmingly good press in his five years in office and has captured double-barreled praise for being a good administrator and a good guy.

That puts a politician in position to do almost anything he wants.

So, am I predicting that Carona will tackle the jail issue?

Not on your life.

For the record, Carona obviously wouldn't concede there's an ongoing problem of abuse. I tried to reach Carona's spokesman Tuesday for an updated assessment but didn't hear from him.

Jail issues are no doubt more complicated than the complaints I've gotten from inmates over the years would suggest. It's just that they never seem to end.

Some become public: In addition to the case sent back last week by the federal appeals court, there's the $650,000 settlement paid in 2002 to another inmate. And the $95,000 paid to a former inmate in 2000. And the class-action lawsuit pending against the department, alleging various civil rights violations at the jail.

Richard Herman, the longtime Orange County attorney who filed the class-action suit and who has been involved in jail-related cases for more than 30 years, isn't holding his breath waiting for Carona to act.

That's probably wise. Sheriffs lobbying for inmates' rights are probably about as common as Boys' Night Out at the jail.

"There's just no legitimate reason for the abuse of inmates," Herman says. Carona "has decided not to take the steps necessary to clean up the jail. I don't know how or why he came to that decision. He certainly had the opportunity to clean up the jail, but he chose not to."

Herman says that guards physically abuse inmates every day, basing that view largely on conversations with inmates after their release. "Not a day goes by that a guard doesn't lay hands on an inmate," Herman says, noting, however, that the complaints are confined almost entirely to the Central Men's Jail and not even fairly large branch facilities like the Musick or Lacy jails.

That's because, Herman says, the central jail is the first point of contact. The mentality, he says, is that inmates need to be clued in quickly to "how the world works, and how it works is violence."

No one is saying being a jail guard is pleasant duty. But everyone from Carona on down also knows how to do the job better. "They have the skills," Herman says.

The jail problems long predate Carona. It's just that he offers so much promise as a leader and has the cachet to do what he wants.

The mark of leadership is doing the unpopular but right thing.

Mentioned as a potential candidate for bigger things, Carona has said he won't run for reelection in 2006. In short, time is tight.

"Yes, it would be a great feather in his cap to clean up the jail and not make it the embarrassment it has been," Herman says. "I'm afraid this sheriff's legacy will not include cleaning up the jail, as I had hoped it would. Instead, it will be a black mark on his record."

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at

dana.parsons@latimes.com or at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

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