During a two-year investigation into the Orange County jail system, the ACLU of Southern California discovered frequent uses of excessive force and verbal abuse against inmates, inadequate medical care, instances of denied due process, and dozens of other problems. The troubling findings “strongly suggest subpar conditions” and potential rights violations within the jails, according to the ACLU report.
Through the course of the investigation, the ACLU surveyed more than 120 former OC jail inmates. The resulting report, authored by Esther Lim and Daisy Ramirez, is over 100 pages long and features individual stories from former inmates as well as and current inmates personally interviewed by the ACLU.
The report is rich with stories that include instances of jail violence (not a new problem for Orange County), dangerous foods in the kitchens, inadequate and dirty clothing, unsafe foods served to inmates, unsanitary living conditions, denied mental health treatment, intentionally withheld menstrual hygiene products, poor medical care for pregnant women, and more.
One inmate, Norma, told the ACLU that two deputies slammed her face into a wall, then took her to the recreation area, twisted her arms behind her back, and ordered her to remove her clothes for a search. During the search, a male deputy was present. Norma was then reportedly handcuffed to a wheelchair and “paraded,” partially undressed, through the processing area of the jail, in front of both male and female inmates.
The ACLU found that OCSD deputies “use force that is not proportionate to the threat presented in cases where infractions do occur or at times when infractions are not present.” The deputies often do not give inmates a reasonable amount of time to comply, and custody personnel use force “with the intent to harm, punish, and intimidate” inmates. Deputies also reportedly incite violence among inmates and fail to intervene in fights in a timely fashion.
No deputy has ever been charged in an incident of inmate abuse. And according to the report, the OC Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens have “turned a blind eye to this abuse and misconduct” over the years.
Rape and sexual harassment are also reportedly common problems within the jails. Those surveyed reported inmates raping, sexually abusing, and harassing fellow inmates. They also reported that jail staff engaged in sexual misconduct and harassed inmates. The report recommends the jails ensure full compliance with the national Prison Rape Elimination Act standards in order to protect those in lock-up.
Additionally, LGBTQ inmates reported that they are denied access to school, religious services, jobs, and other programs because they are held in protective custody for 23 hours each day.
The ACLU found that OCSD deputies house inmates based on their gender assignment at birth, rather than gender identity, and that gay men and transgender individuals are held in involuntary protective custody.
The report also revealed that custody personnel withhold menstrual hygiene products from female inmates. One inmate, Paula, said she was forced to take off her underwear during a search and squeeze and twist her used pad in front of fellow inmates. “It was really humiliating,” Paula said. “I felt degraded.”
Additionally, there were reports of inadequate medical attention, and a lack of proper housing and dietary needs for pregnant women. An inmate reported that when she began bleeding while pregnant, she did not receive medical care until the next day, when a doctor told her that she had miscarried.
The ACLU also found that OCSD deputies “arbitrarily impose disciplinary sanctions” on inmates.
One inmate said that he was disciplined for “asking to see paperwork or even just asking questions.” The inmate, Anthony, said that on a day he had a disciplinary hearing, he was thrown from a wheelchair into his cell. He was unable to get up, and requested assistance. Anthony said a sergeant declined to help him, and then lied, saying that Anthony refused to participate in his disciplinary hearing.
Another inmate, Mark, said that deputies wrote him up a second time for an infraction that occurred three weeks earlier, for which he had just received an in-custody survey. Deputies denied him all privileges for 10 days, and he spent 20 days in solitary confinement. “Who knows what would have happened if I would have filled it [the in-custody survey] and sent it back,” Mark said. “Shit would have probably been real bad.”
In the women’s facility, Ashley said she was rehoused after she submitted a complaint when jail staff threw away personal information, including phone numbers and photographs of her son, during a search. Ashley said that she did not receive a copy of her grievance, and that a deputy accused her of lying. Another inmate said that a deputy refused to give her a grievance slip.
The ACLU recommends that the OCSD increase accessibility of the grievance system for inmates, and put safeguards in place to protect inmates who submit grievances.
In order to address the myriad problems within the jail system, the ACLU is also calling for an independent civilian oversight panel with enough power to push through reforms. The panel would answer directly to the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
After Los Angeles, Orange County’s jail system is the second largest in the state, with an average daily jail population of 6,000 within its five facilities.
LA County has civilian oversight for its sheriff’s department (which has had its own share of scandals in recent years). The commission held its first meeting in January.
The ACLU SoCal has worked for over 40 years as the court-ordered monitor of conditions within all LA County jail facilities. Through the Jails Project, the ACLU looks into complaints from jail inmates, and makes sure the LA County Sheriff’s Department is carrying out court-mandated reforms. Prior to launching its investigation, the ACLU was receiving regular requests for help from OC inmates.
Some similarities between stories that current and former OC inmates shared point to issues that may be systemic, rather than isolated, according to the report.
A March audit by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) within the Department of Homeland Security revealed that immigrant detainees held in Orange County’s Theo Lacy Facility are served spoiled lunch meat, are forced to use moldy showers, and face overly harsh solitary confinement.
There are parallels between findings in the OIG’s report and the stories inmates shared with the ACLU. For example, a woman who worked in an OC jail kitchen, said corrections staff ordered her to serve raw meat in the past. “A lot of people started getting sick and having diarrhea,” the inmate, Lily, told the ACLU. The woman also said that printed on the packages of bologna the kitchen served was a message that said, “Not for human consumption.” Lily and another female inmate both told the ACLU that inmates were given between two and five minutes to eat their meals. The other inmate, Stephanie, told the ACLU that on two occasions, she found cockroaches in the food served to inmates.
“The OC Sheriff’s Department and its jails have been fraught with controversy, allegations of corruption and abuse. This isn’t a recent find,” said Esther Lim, director of the ACLU SoCal Jails Project. “It is clear and obvious that the department and the jails need proper oversight.”
In a statement, the sheriff’s department said the report’s findings were “largely based on interviews and surveys of former inmates.” The department faulted the ACLU for only focusing on the viewpoint of inmates. “While inmates certainly have a perspective to offer on our jail system, the failure to include the perspective of law enforcement has resulted in a report that only tells one side of the story,” the statement read.
These aren’t the only problems that the OCSD is facing.
Together, the sheriff’s department and the OC District Attorney’s Office have been enmeshed in an ongoing jailhouse informant scandal over the last several years.
The DA’s office and sheriff’s department have been accused of housing inmate informants close to defendants in order to procure confessions (in exchange for reduced sentences and other forms of compensation), as well as withholding evidence from defendants.
In a report released earlier in June, a grand jury found that the OC District Attorney’s Office and the OC Sheriff’s Department were not guilty of systemic prosecutorial misconduct involving jailhouse snitches.
The grand jury’s report called allegations of a systemic effort on the part of the DA’s office or sheriff’s department to run an organized snitch program simply “myth.” The high profile snitch scandal can be attributed to widespread media attention, as well as “finger pointing and speculative rhetoric,” according to the grand jury report.
In response to the grand jury’s report, the assistant public defender who uncovered the the ongoing scandal said the jurors seemed to barely notice some of the crucial information in their possession.
On Tuesday, OC Sheriff Sandra Hutchens announced plans to retire at the end of her current term.
Hutchens’ announcement came just hours after the ACLU released its report, and called on the sheriff to resign.
Last year, the OC sheriff said she planned to seek reelection. Hutchens said in an statement that she would not run for sheriff in 2018, not because of the scandals plaguing her department and the OC District Attorney’s Office, but because its time for her to retire after 40 years as a law enforcement officer.
Hutchens was elected in 2008, and took over a jail system plagued by deputy-on-inmate brutality, after then-Sheriff Michael Carona was indicted on multiple corruption charges.