'Rubber Room' Ruling Not Expected to Alter Jail-Isolation Policy

Times Staff Writer

Although a federal judge has again condemned the Orange County Jail's so-called "rubber rooms," county officials asserted Wednesday that the judge's ruling will not substantially change the way they house potentially dangerous inmates in the barren isolation cells.

U.S. District Judge William P. Gray, in an Aug. 11 ruling that appeared to limit the county's latitude in deciding what "amenities" may prove dangerous to inmates, ordered that all prisoners should have mattresses, clothing and the use of toilet facilities except in extraordinary circumstances.

Citing the denial of such human necessities as toilet paper for rubber-room inmates, Gray said that such treatment "constitutes a throwback to the dungeons of medieval times and is not to be tolerated in a more enlightened present-day society."

But as has been the case since the American Civil Liberties Union first took the county to court over the issue last year, the precise implementation of the judge's ruling remains a subject of fierce debate.

ACLU officials, although rebuffed in their efforts to close the cells down, maintained Wednesday that Gray's ruling should have a significant impact in upgrading conditions at the isolation cells.

Noting a similar but less-restrictive ruling by Judge Gray on the subject last winter, ACLU Foundation attorney Rebecca Jurado said that "if (county officials) adhere to the letter of the law, the conditions will be humane. We should see a real change."

But county officials disagreed.

Tom Uran, director of the county's Health Care Agency, acknowledged in an interview that Gray's ruling "means we're going to give them clothes and mattresses and take them away if they're a hazard, rather than starting with the assumption that they are a hazard."

But Uran, who oversees operations at the cells, added quickly: "We will take (such items) away if the psychiatric personnel deem it necessary. It'll just be a little more difficult, and we'll have to watch them a little more closely."

Julie Poulson, deputy director of the county's inpatient and special services, said: "This does not significantly change the way we've been operating; it's consistent."

County jail officials have long maintained that they use the padded, 15-foot square isolation cells not as punishment, but rather as protection for "out of control" or suicidal inmates who might hurt themselves or others if not monitored in a sheltered setting.

The rooms are dark and barren save for a small, bar-covered hole in the floor for human excrement. Inmates have testified before Judge Gray that they were often kept naked in the cold cells for anywhere from four to 30 hours and denied a mattress, toilet paper or wash facilities.

County officials maintain that they have denied inmates such items only when medical staff had determined that the inmates might hurt themselves. But they acknowledged that, since Judge Gray first voiced his concerns about the rubber rooms last November, they have cut back on the rooms' use by more than half, reaching an average of about 12 inmates per month as of June, 1989.

Gray, in his ruling, said county jail officials "recently have been seeking to find a better balance of safety and dignity." But he voiced continued concern that the county has not paid sufficient attention to "the constitutional right of the inmates to be treated as human beings."

As a result, Gray ordered that all inmates must be given a mattress, but said that sheriff's deputies could take "corrective actions" if the inmate tried to tear, burn or eat the mattress.

He also said all inmates should have jumpsuits or other clothing; indestructible jail garments should alleviate any concerns over the shredding of clothes to make "instruments of self-destruction," Gray said.

And he said that all inmates should be allowed to wash their hands after the use of the toilet and before meals and that they should have regular access to toilet facilities unless the jail's watch commander determines this to pose "substantial physical danger to the inmate or the custodial officers. In any event, he will be given toilet paper and the toilet promptly flushed."

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