Judge Cuts Accumulated Jail Fines, Warns of Possible Limit on Inmates
A Los Angeles federal judge Monday cut in half $51,660 in daily fines accumulated against county officials because of overcrowding at the Orange County Jail and approved the temporary use of triple bunks to keep inmates from sleeping on the floor.
But U.S. District Judge William P. Gray warned county officials he might impose a limit on the jail’s population in October if the number of inmates is not at a manageable level by then.
Gray commended county officials for efforts over the last three months that have reduced the population at the men’s jail in downtown Santa Ana to 1,600 from 2,000. But Gray said his own tour of the jail two weeks ago, when the population was about 1,700, showed him that the jail is still far too crowded.
“Inmates have the right to be treated like human beings, and the right not to be cramped together like sheep in a pen,” Gray said.
Gray said he would not hesitate to order Sheriff Brad Gates to close his doors to any new prisoners if it became necessary.
Gray did not say what ceiling figure he might impose. But the American Civil Liberties Union is asking for a ceiling of 1,191, the state-recommended capacity for the jail.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas F. Riley said later that “it’s my goal” that the jail’s population be low enough in October that the judge would not impose any ceiling.
Criminal Contempt Finding
On March 18, Gray fined the county $50,000 and found the supervisors and Gates in criminal contempt for violating his seven-year-old order that all inmates be given a bunk to sleep on. He added a fine of $10 daily for each inmate who had to sleep on the floor more than one night, beginning May 18.
On Monday, Gray upheld the original $50,000 fine but halved the accumulated $10-a-day fines, which had mounted to $51,660. The fines, however, still continue at the $10 daily rate.
At the time of his March 18 order, the jail had 1,530 inmates in bunks, and 500 others sleeping on mats on the floor. On Sunday night, just 16 inmates were sleeping on the floor, and only 11 of those had been there for more than one night, Deputy County Counsel Edward Duran told the judge.
Gates and the county supervisors have worked feverishly in recent weeks to reduce the number of inmates forced to sleep on the floor. The sheriff added a few more bunks to the jail, and cut back the population at least a hundred by refusing to take state and federal prisoners for more than a few days each. He also sent 100 inmates to the Theo Lacy branch jail in Orange three weeks ago. Last Saturday, with approval from the supervisors, Gates set up four gigantic sleeping tents with wood floors at the James A. Musick Honor Farm near El Toro, which will eventually house 450 inmates.
The tents will eventually be replaced by trailer-like modular units, now on order from Oregon. Gates plans to keep up two of the tents even then as back-up units.
Duran told the judge that by July 5 the population at the men’s jail should be no higher than 1,500. With the use of triple bunks, that would mean no inmates sleeping on the floor.
But Duran said he did not expect the jail population to be much lower than 1,500 by the time of Gray’s next court hearing, set for Oct. 21.
ACLU attorney Richard Herman said he will continue to push at that hearing for a ceiling.
“I think the judge has made it clear: The root issue is not the numbers on the floor, but overcrowding,” Herman said. “The jail will not be safe for the inmates until that population is down a lot lower than it is now.”
To help make his point, Herman brought into court Monday Edgar Smith, assistant executive director of the state Board of Corrections, who testified that the Orange County Jail should have a population 10% lower than the capacity of 1,191 in order to operate efficiently.
Smith also testified that he is generally opposed to triple bunking. But under questioning from the judge, Smith said the county’s plan for replacing 42 double bunks in each jail dormitory with 30 triple bunks is preferable to having inmates sleeping on the floor.
After Gray’s hearing, Duran said he was disappointed the judge did not waive all of the accumulated fines against the county. But he added he was pleased the judge showed some appreciation for the county’s efforts to reduce the jail’s population.
Riley said he was pleased with Gray’s order too.
“I think it shows that the judge understands what we have to face, and that we are making an effort,” he said.
Gray denied Duran’s request that all of the original $50,000 fine against the county be waived except for the fees paid to Lawrence Grossman, the special master appointed by Gray to monitor jail conditions. Also, Gray ordered that the $10-a-day-fine formula continue.
“The carrot and the stick approach seems to be working,” Gray said. “I feel obliged to keep the pressure on.”
A few minutes after Gray’s ruling, another federal judge issued an order affecting the Orange County Jail that was less pleasing to county officials.
U.S. District Judge Pamela A. Rymer ruled that “punishment tanks” at the jail were essentially the same as the disciplinary isolation cells that are the subject of a separate challenge from the ACLU.
In a settlement conference with the ACLU last December, the county agreed not to keep prisoners in disciplinary isolation more than 10 days without sending them to a psychiatrist, nor to keep them there for more than 30 days without giving them three days out for exercise periods.
At the December conference, ACLU attorneys noted that jail officials had issued a training bulletin which indicated that punishment tanks did not have to meet the conditions of the settlement.
The county contended that disciplinary isolation was for major offenses, and that the punishment tanks, though similar, are intended for lesser offenses. In punishment tanks, the inmates are kept in single cells, which isn’t always true in disciplinary isolation.
Monday, ACLU attorney Herman presented in court a letter from the state Board of Corrections stating that punishment tanks and disciplinary isolation were the same.
Rymer said she agreed.
“If punishment tanks look like it (disciplinary isolation), sounds like it, and smells like it, then to me it’s the same,” she said.