The image of prisoners stripped and thrown naked into small, dark concrete cells with rubber padding and a hole in the floor for their waste conjures up thoughts of some archaic, Devil’s Island penal colony, not the jail system in high-tech Orange County, 1988.
But such cells, without light, heat or bedding, do exist in Orange County. They are known as “rubber rooms,” and they are legal in California, permitted ostensibly for limited and closely regulated use in cases involving uncontrollable inmates. A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, however, alleges that the rubber rooms are also used to punish Orange County inmates whom jailers consider combative, uncooperative or “bizarre.” Some of those inmates, according to the lawsuit, are awaiting trial, which means that they have only been arrested or charged but not convicted of any wrongdoing.
A hearing on the lawsuit seeking a preliminary judgment to prevent the sheriff from using the rooms will be held in federal court Nov. 1.
The Orange County Jail operation for years has been the target of all kinds of accusations and criticisms, ranging from inadequate medical care to the use of excessive force by guards. This lawsuit, however, raises the most brutal charges thus far and, if supported by facts, exposes shocking and improper treatment of prisoners that must be severely dealt with at once.
Several years ago, a federal court judge, correctly disturbed about overcrowding at the jail and prisoners sleeping on the floor, ordered the county to provide a bunk for every inmate each night. Those conditions were luxurious compared to what prisoners endure in the rubber rooms.
But even if the court determines that the rubber rooms are not used to illegally punish inmates, but only to control mental patients, there still remains the question of basic humaneness, of using the rooms under any circumstances. Inmates with mental problems would be better treated in hospital settings by mental health experts.
The lawsuit, prepared by Dick Herman, a volunteer attorney for the ACLU, says that “because of the unspeakably vile conditions of the rubber rooms, no human being should be held in such conditions for any reason.” Some jail officials agree with him. Los Angeles and Riverside county jails do not have rubber rooms. Orange County doesn’t need them either.