The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting an investigation into Orange County's troubled jail system, examining a decade's worth of allegations that deputies mistreated inmates and used excessive force to keep control.
Officials from the department's Civil Rights Division are seeking to determine whether incidents of violence by jail personnel amount to a pattern of violating inmates' rights, the Sheriff's Department confirmed.
The Orange County district attorney criticized deputies earlier this year for a "code of silence" that he said hampered prosecutors' ability to investigate possible criminal activities.
Among recent cases: An inmate was stomped to death by fellow prisoners after a deputy allegedly told them falsely that the man was a child molester. A county grand jury later criticized the Sheriff's Department for trying to impede the investigation into the death and concluded that there was evidence of rampant abuse at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange.
The department has also been criticized for using Taser stun guns on handcuffed or restrained inmates, a practice Sheriff Sandra Hutchens ended earlier this year. In 2007 and 2008, inmates died after being stunned. That change is one of several that Hutchens has made in jail policy in just over a year as sheriff.
The Justice Department investigation began at the end of December and may take more than a year to complete.
If a pattern of misconduct is found, U.S. officials could seek a court-ordered federal consent decree similar to the one that the Los Angeles Police Department had to operate under after the Rampart corruption scandal. It took nearly a decade for the LAPD to have federal oversight lifted.
For Orange County officials, that oversight would be an unwelcome prospect because it can raise costs and shift control over the jails to a court-appointed monitor.
"We do have an open and ongoing investigation into the Orange County, Calif., jails," said Alejandro Miyar, a spokesman for the Justice Department. "I can confirm that, as well as that the jurisdiction is cooperating." Miyar declined to provide additional details on the inquiry.
Under the federal law protecting the rights of the institutionalized, the department can begin an investigation if officials have reasonable cause to believe that people are subject to "egregious" conditions that deprive them of legal rights.
Orange County's jail system houses about 6,000 inmates in four facilities. The women's jail was recently closed for budgetary reasons.
The probe has already generated thousands of pages of paper as well as a weeklong visit and inspection in April of the five facilities by a team from the Justice Department, sheriff's officials said. The team included a "strategic health professional," a clinical professor of psychiatry, a corrections expert, a doctor and Justice Department staff members, according to Assistant Sheriff Mike James, who is in charge of the county's jails.
The team requested information on nearly every detail of jail life but seemed most interested in inmates' medical care and the use of force by deputies in the jails, Hutchens said.
On April 17, the federal inspectors sat down with Hutchens, James and other senior officials and told them they needed to reexamine their use of force on inmates and provide better guidelines for handling inmates who are intoxicated or withdrawing from drugs, James said.
"We have a lot of incidents where we end up using force on inmates because they are uncooperative," he said. "They want to look more into that procedure."
Federal officials have also asked for information about Taser use on inmates, including those who are already restrained or in a "prone position."
Some of the issues being raised by the federal investigation have previously come up in grand jury probes that have criticized the jail system.
Grand jury testimony on the 2006 killing of John Derek Chamberlain, the man allegedly pegged falsely as a molester, revealed that a ranking deputy was watching TV and text-messaging friends while inmates assaulted Chamberlain for about 50 minutes. Cameras have since been placed in the Theo Lacy barracks.
In June 2008, a second grand jury released a report recommending that deputies no longer use Tasers when other means to control inmates are available. One inmate died in October 2007 at the Central Men's Jail and a second died in April 2008 at the Intake Release Center after each was Tasered.
Many of the issues raised by federal investigators are being dealt with already, James said.
"Even though it's been burdensome, we've cooperated fully, given them all they asked for and made changes where appropriate," he added.
Hector Villagra, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Orange County office, which was involved in shaping the department's new Taser policy, said he hoped the federal inquiry would give Hutchens additional clout in making needed changes. She "inherited a lot of this, and I think she's making moves in the right direction," Villagra said.
Hutchens, who assumed her post in June 2008, was brought in to reform the department after the resignation of Sheriff Michael S. Carona, who was later convicted of felony witness tampering.