The killing of inmate Danny Pham in an Orange County jail earlier this month underscores a deficit of effective leadership in that county that has undermined confidence in the jails and the people who run them. There have been too many problems to simply brush them off as bad luck, or as the sort of mistakes or tragedies that inevitably occur in the operation of any large county jail. Investigations into Pham's death are underway — as are court proceedings alleging that the authorities have misused jailhouse informants — and there are continuing concerns over escapes and inhumane conditions, but it's not yet possible to see how or when the seemingly perpetual problems in management of the jails will abate.
Pham was found dead in his cell on July 3, shortly before he was to have completed a 180-day sentence for car theft. Pham's lawyer told The Times that he had been informed his client was killed by a cellmate who was in jail on two murder charges.
In many jails, it's common and sensible practice to separate potentially violent inmates from others, and people awaiting trial from those who are serving sentences. If conducted properly, the sheriff's investigation will tell us whether the Orange County jail system has such protocols, whether jailers breached them and, if so, how frequently.
Meanwhile, the Orange County Sheriff's Department continues to face credible allegations that it has purposely placed informants — inmate snitches — into particular cells in an effort to elicit confessions or other evidence that can be used by the district attorney to win convictions or tougher sentences.
The alleged snitch program is at issue in the criminal sentencing of Scott Dekraai, the confessed killer of his ex-wife and seven other people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011. Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders represents Dekraai and claims that prosecutors and deputies conspired to house his client with a snitch in order to obtain information to support a death sentence, and in so doing violated Dekraai's constitutional rights.
Just as a law enforcement officer or a prosecutor may not question a suspect out of the presence of a defense attorney if one is requested, they generally may not use an agent to try to get inmates' statements on their behalf.
The judge in Dekraai's case, Thomas Goethals, has said he was satisfied "beyond any doubt" that the sheriff had a jailhouse snitch program, despite denials by the sheriff and an assertion by the grand jury that the existence of such a program was "a myth" beyond the misdeeds of a few rogue deputies. Goethals also criticized Hutchens for failing to come forward with a log documenting the use of informants, along with dozens of boxes of other arguably relevant material; and he leveled similar criticism against Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, whose office he has barred from the Dekraai prosecution.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has cautioned in a recent report that conditions in Orange County jails fall below constitutionally acceptable standards. The report — citing excessive force against inmates, inadequate healthcare and unsafe conditions — sounds ominously similar to earlier warnings about the Los Angeles County jails, later borne out in a series of reviews, reports and criminal prosecutions.
Jails by their nature are not pleasant places, but neither should they be dungeons that jeopardize the lives of inmates, or chambers in which public employees attempt to circumvent constitutional protections against self-incrimination. Jail could and should be a place where safety is as certain as it is on the street. It should be a place where inmates can stabilize their lives, and begin necessary treatment for mental illness, substance abuse or whatever condition led them to lawlessness in the first place.
Society owes itself, as well as its inmates, a criminal justice system that protects the innocent from depredations of criminals while at the same time offering those same criminals an opportunity to change their ways. It owes itself a system in which people sworn to protect and defend the Constitution actually do so. There are too many signals — the killing of Pham being only the latest — that those officials responsible for the Orange County jails are failing to meet their obligations.