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ACLU Sues Sheriff’s Dept. Over Jail’s ‘Rubber Rooms’

Times Staff Writer

An ACLU lawsuit filed against the Orange County Sheriff’s Department on Friday charges that inmates are sometimes punished by being thrown naked into “rubber rooms” that are empty except for a hole in the floor for their excrement, a condition that violates “minimal concepts of decency.”

The American Civil Liberties Union suit also says that the rooms have no light, heat or bedding and that inmates are forced to sleep on the floor in close proximity to their own waste. Since there are no eating utensils or toilet paper, the suit charges, inmates must clean themselves and eat with their unwashed hands.

“Because of the unspeakably vile conditions of the rubber rooms, no human being should be held in such conditions for any reason,” the suit says.

Sheriff’s Department Lt. Richard J. Olson said he could not comment on the case “since the attorneys are handling it.” He also declined to describe the so-called “rubber rooms” or say what their official name is.

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Deputy County Counsel Stefen H. Weiss, who is representing the Sheriff’s Department in the case, also declined to comment.

The suit was prepared by Dick Herman, a volunteer attorney for the ACLU. It was filed in federal court in Santa Ana on behalf of three inmates at the Orange County central jail, but Herman is seeking to represent all of the jail’s inmates through a class action.

Herman said a hearing is scheduled in federal court Nov. 1 to consider a preliminary injunction prohibiting the sheriff from using the rooms.

The suit says inmates--some of whom may be awaiting trial--are put in the rubber rooms for intoxication, combativeness and being uncooperative or “bizarre.” Those terms come from pre-printed forms used by jail deputies to report the reasons for placing an inmate in a “rubber room,” the suit says.

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It also said inmates have been kept in the rooms for several days.

Herman said other counties use such rooms, but he charged that they too are illegal. Los Angeles and Riverside county

jails do not have such rooms, officials there said.

Also Friday, Herman was in federal court on a separate suit against the Sheriff’s Department that he filed independently. That suit accuses jail deputies of brutality and names five inmates who allegedly were beaten separately by groups of deputies who used excessive force, Herman said.

A federal judge in Los Angeles denied Herman’s request that the suit be certified as a class-action case. The ruling is significant because it means that the judge’s decisions will be limited to the individuals named in the case, not to the overall county operation of the jails.

Fourteen Orange County jail deputies were listed as defendants in the case. One is also under investigation for involvement in a brawl at the Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood on Sunday.

Four employees of the night spot who were injured in the fight--one with four broken ribs--charged that the brawl was instigated by four off-duty Orange County deputies. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigators said, however, that the deputies claim they did not throw the first punch.

The investigators identified Orange County Deputy Michael Elliott as one of the combatants.

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Elliott is named in Herman’s brutality suit as one of two deputies responsible for an Aug. 11, 1987, incident in which an inmate was excessively beaten while he was in a search position against a wall.

In another incident allegedly involving Elliott, Thomas F. Maniscalco, a jail-house lawyer awaiting trial for a triple murder, said he filed a complaint against Elliott and other deputies last July for an incident in which an inmate was severely beaten.

Maniscalco and about four other inmates who were in an adjacent room during the altercation complained that the attack was unprovoked and excessive.

“People are all shocked when it happens on the street, but you can’t imagine what these guys are like when they’re here, out of the public’s eye, and they have inmates to beat up,” Maniscalco said.


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