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Troubled jail to test the next O.C. sheriff

June 02, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Theo Lacy is Orange County's largest and most notorious jail, the site of a highly publicized inmate homicide and the focus of a scathing report by the district attorney.

It was at the jail, on a busy street across from a popular shopping mall in Orange, that a mob of inmates took turns beating, kicking and sodomizing John Derek Chamberlain in 2006 while a guard watched television and exchanged cellphone text messages with friends.

Theo Lacy will be an immediate focus of the county's next sheriff, whom the Board of Supervisors is expected to appoint in the coming weeks. The new sheriff will be confronted by a grand jury investigation that found deputies at the lockup watched movies, napped or played video games while they were supposed to be watching inmates.

Most of the nine candidates for sheriff, who were interviewed by supervisors last week, said that restoring the public's confidence in the department -- reeling from the October criminal indictment of former Sheriff Michael S. Carona -- will be their priority. And confronting concerns about the 2,700-bed Theo Lacy facility will be one of the first steps in that process.

During a recent evening shift at the jail, deputies said the Theo Lacy described in the grand jury report is not the jailhouse they know. They said their morale had been hammered by the criticism and that the district attorney's April report -- based on months of testimony before a special grand jury -- focused on the actions of a minority within the department. Most deputies, they said, work hard to safeguard inmates in their charge.

Interim Sheriff Jack Anderson has taken steps to address concerns raised by the grand jury investigation: He fired one jail employee, suspended several others, obtained funding for closed-circuit televisions in guard booths and inmate dormitories and banned deputies from using electronic devices on the job.

Anderson also transferred dozens of deputies between the county's three main jail facilities, a move he said was intended to reduce complacency. The union that represents deputies took the department to court, saying the transfers violated the deputies' contract.

A judge sided with Anderson.

Anderson also launched what he said would become the largest internal-affairs investigation in department history and hired Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the Los Angeles County sheriff's Office of Independent Review, to oversee the probe.

Anderson, one of the finalists being considered for the sheriff's job, said he's trying to instill a new "customer-orientation" culture in the department's jails. "The inmates are our customers. . . . They're dependent upon us for everything. My goal is to make sure the deputies recognize the inmates are taken care of," he said.

Deputies at Theo Lacy said they had the same goal.

They said the grand jury investigation focused primarily on the actions of three guards at Theo Lacy's F Barracks, where 10% of the jail's inmates were housed.

"Two percent of the employees cause 98% of the problems. Most of the guys are awesome," said Sgt. Paul Damico, who works nights at Theo Lacy.

Sitting behind a control board covered with switches, lights and video screens on which he monitors the movements of inmates, sheriff's Special Officer Brian Buns said, "What you read in the paper is not the Theo Lacy we work at."

"We had a few people, they did not do their job. Unfortunately, we all pay for it," said Deputy Philip Roth, who's been with the department for 23 years.

"We are doing a good job," he added. "We have our lives on the line every day. Nothing has been said about the good work we do, all the inmates we have and the minute number of inmates hurt."

Chamberlain was the first inmate slain in the jail this decade. By comparison, at least 15 inmates have been slain in Los Angeles County jails since 2000.

Los Angeles County jails house about four times as many inmates as Orange County's jails.

"Morale is at an all-time low in the department, not just at Theo Lacy. The way we're painted in the press it's like it's a rampant abuse, and the numbers aren't there to back it up," said Wayne Quint, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents the department's deputies.

"Everyone isn't sleeping there. Everyone isn't watching movies," Quint said. "The grand jury report is accurate, but it looked at a segment of the jail and not the whole thing."

Theo Lacy, which opened in 1960 with a capacity of 400 inmates, has been expanded several times through the years. It houses inmates in a variety of holding areas: open dormitories, or barracks, for low-risk inmates and single-person cells for high-security inmates. It is staffed by 300 deputies and 100 other professional employees.

Capt. David Wilson was placed in charge of the jail shortly after the grand jury report was released.

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