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Violence and inhumane conditions plague Orange County jails, ACLU report alleges

An American Civil Liberties Union report alleges that Orange County sheriff's deputies assaulted inmates at county jails.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Sheriff’s deputies working at Orange County jails have assaulted inmates, instigated fights and verbally abused them, according to a report released Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

The report also alleges that holding cells for the inmates are filthy, smeared with human waste and packed with people sleeping on the floors. In one case, deputies slammed a woman’s face against the wall, handcuffed her to a wheelchair and “paraded” her around while she was partially nude, she told the ACLU.

Those are some of the findings described in the 104-page report on the county’s jails by the ACLU, which said it spent two years investigating the second-largest jail system in the state.

The ACLU based its report on post-release surveys of 120 inmates, interviews with those incarcerated, reports by the Orange County grand jury and media accounts. ACLU advocates said their investigation is the first public glimpse of the county’s jail from the point of view of the people who inhabit them.

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According to the report, deputies’ use of force “tends to be excessive or unnecessary,” and they “routinely instigate” fights between inmates or deliberately fail to intervene when fights are occurring. One inmate said deputies will blame the loss of privileges like television time on a single person, marking them as targets of retaliation.

Inmates also complained that in some instances they were given just a few minutes to eat. ACLU advocates said they heard stories of people vomiting because they were trying to eat so fast.

“They’re literally scarfing food down,” said Esther Lim, a jails advocate with the ACLU who worked on the report.

The ACLU blamed Sheriff Sandra Hutchens for the problems at the county’s jails and called for her resignation at Tuesday’s county Board of Supervisors meeting.

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“Obviously, Sheriff Hutchens is failing in operating the jails,” Lim said.

Hutchens announced that she will not seek reelection hours after the ACLU released its report.

In response, the Sheriff’s Department said the report gave “a purposely distorted view” of the county jail system by relying largely on interviews from former inmates.

“The failure to include the perspective of law enforcement has resulted in a report that only tells one side of the story,” the department said in a statement.

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“Jails house some of society’s worst, but fortunately we have some of society’s best who work hard each day to ensure that the facilities remain safe.”

The report comes amid an ongoing controversy involving the use of so-called jailhouse snitches in the county’s jails. A county grand jury last week issued a report dismissing the idea that sheriff’s and district attorney’s officials had run a secret operation that employed jailhouse snitches to obtain confessions from criminal defendants. But the report is unlikely to be the final word, as the U.S. Department of Justice and the California attorney general’s office are actively investigating the matter.

The jail system has been rocked by other problems, including a daring escape by three inmates last year and a years-long investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice the 2006 beating death of an inmate at the hands of others incarcerated at Theo Lacy jail.

In 2014, the federal probe found that jail conditions had improved but that there were still problems with the use of force and medical care. Sheriff’s deputies have also filed a lawsuit against the department in the wake of the jail escape, alleging that staff reductions and other missteps allowed the escape — which led to a taxi driver being taken hostage — to happen.

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The ACLU report faulted the Sheriff’s Department’s management of the jails in a number of other areas, including how mentally ill people are treated and housed, and overcrowding. It alleges that gay male and transgender inmates are denied access to things like religious services and school, and people requesting special diets based on religion are often denied.

Among other recommendations, the report called for the establishment of an independent civilian oversight commission with “subpoena and investigatory powers” to look into use of force incidents. “This can further the goal of transparency and accountability and begin to restore and increase public trust,” the report said.

Adam.Elmahrek@latimes.com

@adamelmahrek

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UPDATES:

10:10 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

This article was originally published at 8:35 p.m.

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