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San Bernardino inmates allege gay discrimination in jail

San Bernardino inmates allege gay discrimination in jail
Former West Valley Detention Center inmate Dan McKibben, 51, speaking at the ACLU's L.A. headquarters, says he saw deputies in the jail use homophobic slurs on fellow inmates on six occasions. (Allen J. Schaben)

San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies called gay, bisexual and transgender inmates "sisses" and "freak shows" and denied them access to services given to other inmates, civil rights attorneys alleged in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Fifteen current and former inmates of the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga said in the suit that they were abused, retaliated against and ultimately kept behind bars longer than their straight counterparts.

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"The one thing I keep getting stuck on is the uniform, the badge," said ex-inmate Dan McKibben, who identified himself as a former sheriff's deputy from Indiana. "These are the people that have the control, that are responsible for our safety."

The class-action lawsuit, which seeks reforms in the jail, names the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, Sheriff John McMahon and several deputies.

The suit cites several cases in which gay inmates were allegedly denied equal access to drug rehabilitation and educational programs. Gay inmates were allowed less time out of their cells and were unable to participate in work programs that would reduce their sentences, the suit claims.

"In the United States, we punish people because of the crime they commit, not because of who they are," said Melissa Goodman, an ACLU attorney who filed the suit along with the law firm Kaye, McLane, Bednarski & Litt, LLP.

Jodi Miller, a sheriff's spokeswoman, said the department had not seen the lawsuit and does not comment on pending litigation.

Inmates who self-identify as gay, bisexual or transgender are automatically isolated from the general inmate population and housed in an "Alternative Lifestyle Tank" at the Cucamonga jail, according to the lawsuit.

Other jails have separate housing for gay, bisexual and transgender inmates, usually as a safety precaution, Goodman said.

"Jails do have an obligation to keep people safe, and we don't quibble with that, but they also have an obligation to treat people fairly," she said.

Deputies skipped safety checks and walk-throughs in the gay cellblock and avoided going near inmates' cells, the plaintiffs alleged.

Gay inmates who asked to participate in a drug rehabilitation program at another county jail, the Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center in Devore, were denied because they could not be housed there, the lawsuit states. Instead, they participated in a self-study, "journaling" rehab program that did not let them earn time off their sentences, unlike Glen Helen inmates.

Former inmate Peter Guzman, 34, said he was kept behind bars up to 23 hours a day and forced to eat meals in his cell — even though there was a day room with tables nearby.

Guzman, who spent seven months in West Valley awaiting trial in a fraudulent check-writing case, said that from his cellblock he could see that straight inmates were often out of their cells. Sometimes, violent offenders who were straight served food to the gay inmates as part of a work program that gay inmates were denied access to, Guzman said.

"You're already inside a unit where nobody can get in there … and yet they said it was for our safety," he said. "It just didn't make any sense at all."

Guzman said a deputy once slammed his face against the bars because he is gay.

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McKibben, 51, said he once saw deputies beating a gay inmate. Deputies, he said, regularly used gay slurs when addressing inmates.

McKibben, who spent about two months in the gay cellblock, said he was appalled at the behavior of those who'd taken an oath to uphold the law.

"When you're sworn, you're sworn. And I took that oath," he said. "These guys, every other minute, were violating that."

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