U.S. District Judge William P. Gray Tuesday ordered Orange County officials to answer 10 questions from the American Civil Liberties Union about inmate rights in the Orange County Jail--despite vigorous arguments that he was going beyond his authority.
“Once the judge looks into these areas, where does it stop?” said Deputy County Counsel Edward N. Duran.
Gray also scheduled an April 29 hearing in his Los Angeles courtroom to decide whether to give county officials more time to reduce the population at the main jail to 1,400.
Over the past year, Gray has issued a series of orders to reduce overcrowding in the jail. Now that the jail population has been reduced, argued ACLU attorney Richard P. Herman, it is time for Gray to begin looking into specific areas of inmate rights.
Gray scheduled a May 20 hearing date to determine whether such inquiries are within his authority. Meanwhile, he ordered county officials to give the ACLU information about inmate rights.
“I don’t think the walls will fall in if you go ahead and answer Mr. Herman’s questions,” Gray said.
Herman asked for information in 10 areas: attorney waiting time to see inmates, haircut policies, holding-cell problems, inmate access to hard-cover books, access to law libraries, roof recreation for inmates in medical isolation, privileges for inmates being punished in isolation cells, meals, materials given to indigent inmates and publication of rules within the jail.
“Your Honor, we contend you simply don’t have jurisdiction in these areas,” Duran argued.
“Oh, these are not top-secret matters,” Gray answered. “Go ahead and give it to him.”
Herman alleged, for example, that inmates in the branch jails do not have access to law books and that some inmates must wait several months for a haircut.
“If I were a pretrial detainee,” Gray said, “and I had to go three months without a haircut, boy, oh, boy, I wonder what I would look like.”
Gray did agree to stay his order for 10 days to give Duran time to report back to the county Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Brad Gates. Duran said they would decide whether to appeal Gray’s ruling.
Actually, several of the areas Herman is inquiring about, such as haircuts and the availability of hardback books, are being resolved. But Herman said this inquiry is just the beginning of the next step in the ACLU’s attempt to guarantee civil rights for inmates.
On March 18, 1985, Gray found the Board of Supervisors and Gates in contempt of court for violating his 7-year-old order on overcrowding, issued a $50,000 fine and placed a special master in the jail to inform him about jail problems.
When Gray issued the contempt order, there were more than 2,000 inmates in the main men’s jail, with more than 500 sleeping on the floor.
Currently, under Gray’s order, no more than 1,500 inmates may be housed in the jail. He also set a population ceiling of 1,400 for April 1, to coincide with a 180-bed expansion at the Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange.
But he postponed that deadline until May 1 at Gates’ request, after the sheriff said he could not guarantee compliance because of the number of arrested men brought to the jail from police agencies each day.
Gray’s special master, Lawrence G. Grossman, last week recommended that Gray modify his order to let Gates house 1,450 at the jail on weekends and 1,500 on holiday weekends.
Grossman told Gray that arrests probably will increase in the summer, making it difficult for Gates to comply with the 1,400 cap at all times, even if he continues to release some inmates early.
Herman said he would oppose Duran’s request to postpone the 1,400 capa but would not object to Grossman’s modified plan.