County officials obtained a federal judge’s permission Thursday to remove inmates from the overcrowded Orange County Jail and temporarily house them in tents.
The chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Thomas F. Riley, said that Sheriff Brad Gates and other officials were “recommending use of temporary tent facilities to house inmates until more suitable structures can be completed.”
Richard Herman, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who is suing the county to improve conditions at the main men’s jail in Santa Ana, said the tents would be erected at the Theo Lacy branch jail in Orange.
Riley said Herman objected to the tents, but Herman said he agreed with the judge’s statement “that anything was better than triple bunks” in the main jail.
Herman said the tents would be used while the James A. Musick Honor Farm near El Toro is being expanded, which is expected to take three to six months.
Herman and Paul Carey, an aide to Riley, said they did not know how many inmates would be housed in the tents, and Gates was not available for comment.
But a report by Edgar A. Smith of the state Corrections Department that was sent to Gates last month indicated that 150 or more inmates serving their time on weekends could be put in 50-man inflatable tents on the playing field at Theo Lacy.
Carey said officials first thought that the use of tents was unacceptable to Corrections Department officials. After learning otherwise, he said, officials “are pursuing it pretty eagerly” to help end the overcrowding.
On March 18, U.S. District Judge William P. Gray found Gates and the supervisors in criminal contempt of court for not obeying his 1978 order to improve conditions at the jail.
Gray fined the county $50,000 immediately, plus $10 a day for every prisoner forced to sleep on a mattress on the floor for more than one night, effective May 17.
Riley said that in a telephone conference call Thursday among Herman, Gray and Edward Duran, a deputy Orange County counsel, the judge said the use of tents was an acceptable temporary solution.
On Wednesday the supervisors authorized spending $138,000 for 240 triple-decked bunks, which would provide beds for 125 inmates now sleeping on the floor.
Herman objected to use of the triple bunks, contending that it would “institutionalize overcrowding” at the jail through the use of “concentration camp” bunks.
Carey said the county was “pursuing a combination of triple bunks and tents, both as temporary solutions” to relieve overcrowding. But Herman said the judge had not approved the use of the bunks, and he believed the tents were “now the principal solution” to temporarily easing the jail problem.
Smith’s report to Gates warned that “what we know of tents and prisoners is all bad” but said they would be acceptable if they were used only temporarily and only for minimum-security prisoners.
“We all understand that these are unusual circumstances requiring unusual solutions,” Smith said.
A week ago Gates moved 100 inmates from the jail to Theo Lacy and Musick. But the sheriff warned the supervisors that there were no “quick fixes” to reduce the jail population and repeated that the long-term answer is to build a new jail. The supervisors have yet to pick a site for a new jail.
On Wednesday the supervisors berated Herman for appearing before the board and criticizing their handling of the jail quandary.
New Staffers Approved
The board also voted to spend $919,699 for 57 new staffers in the Sheriff’s Department, most of them sheriff’s deputies to handle the increased prison populations at Theo Lacy and Musick. Gates said the money would come from $3 million the supervisors authorized last month as an addition to Gates’ budget to help pay for measures needed to cut overcrowding.
Riley has said that he wants to be sure the judge realizes that the supervisors are making “a good-faith effort” to comply with his order to improve conditions at the jail. But Herman has said he will ask the judge to increase his $10-a day fine immediately to $5,000 per day for each inmate without a bed, plus a $10,000 per day fine if the jail population is not reduced within 90 days to 1,191, the number the building was built to hold.
County officials said that after the transfer of the 100 inmates to Lacy and Musick, the jail population has been around 1,800. It has beds for about 1,500 inmates.