Orange County Grand Jury says county jails have security flaws
The Orange County Grand Jury identified several security flaws in Orange County jails in a report released this week, including security weak points that could lead to contraband being brought into jails and an insufficient chain-link fence at a maximum-security jail.
The report highlighted the need for a block wall at the Theo Lacy facility because the current fence between the jail and the vacant Orange County Animal Shelter “presents a major security risk.”
In February, there were about 1,800 inmates at Theo Lacy, which is located in Orange, near the large shopping plaza the Outlets at Orange.
The grand jury also stressed that the Theo Lacy facility’s front desk is a security risk because there isn’t enough separation between the public and jail staff. There is currently a 2-foot-tall plexiglass wall on top of the desk. The grand jury recommends that it be raised to 8 feet.
“The main entrance is a hub for the public to enter the facility,” the report says. "[Orange County Sheriff’s Department] personnel are behind a desk with a 2-foot-tall plexiglass wall atop the desk that could be easily breached.”
The grand jury report also found several other security gaps in the jails and provided recommendations to the Sheriff’s Department, including the installation of security booths and video surveillance cameras in the attorney bonds entrance at the Central Men’s Jail because the current security system at the entrance is inadequate to prevent the trafficking of contraband.
“An [Orange County Grand Jury] tour of the [Central Men’s Jail] in September 2020 revealed the Attorney Bonds Entrance area had significant security issues,” the report says. “There were no video surveillance cameras in the area, and no separation between attorney and inmate, creating an opportunity for contraband to enter the facility.”
The grand jury also said that contraband could be brought into the Intake and Release Center because there aren’t enough Sheriff’s Department personnel trained to scan inmates. The grand jury recommends that all inmates should be scanned “to enhance security and reduce contraband coming into the jail.”
The grand jury also recommends for the department to require mandatory COVID-19 testing for all jail staff.
“Lack of mandatory COVID testing for jail personnel creates a high risk of infection to inmates and others,” the report says.
Despite the security and coronavirus testing issues it highlighted, the grand jury found that the jails and facilities were acceptable and in overall compliance with state and federal standards.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said in an emailed statement that the construction projects recommended by the grand jury are consistent with Barnes’ plans and will be reviewed. She did not specify which projects she was referring to, and said that some projects have been delayed due to the department’s efforts to mitigate COVID-19 and until funding is available. The grand jury report acknowledged these delays.
“The Grand Jury’s report provides a factual account of the complex work and tremendous dedication of the custody and healthcare personnel working in the Orange County Jail system,” Braun said. “We are pleased that the Grand Jury recognized Sheriff Barnes’ proactive efforts to manage COVID-19. Additionally the Grand Jury commended the efforts to meet the behavioral health needs of the inmates in custody.”
Braun also provided comment on the Theo Lacy fence that the grand jury highlighted.
“The fence separating the Theo Lacy Facility from the vacant Animal Shelter is a double fence (essentially two layers of fencing) with razor wire atop both fences,” Braun said. “The area adjacent to the fence is a restricted area, utilized only by lower security inmates who are monitored and do not pose a significant escape risk. We are constantly in a state of assessment regarding security and making improvements to provide the most secure facilities possible.”
The grand jury report also analyzed healthcare in the O.C. jails, identifying a few flaws with Correctional Health Services, which is a part of the county’s healthcare agency.
The grand jury recommends that Correctional Health Services staff receive more crisis intervention training. The report also recommends mandatory COVID-19 testing for all health staff.
“Lack of mandatory COVID testing for [Correctional Health Services] staff creates a high risk of infection to inmates and others,” the report says.
Jessica Good, a Health Care Agency spokeswoman, said the department is aware of the grand jury report and will respond through the county executive office’s established process.
Each department has 90 days to formally respond to the grand jury.
The security flaws in the O.C. jail system are all the more crucial in light of the much-publicized escape of three inmates from the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana in 2016. The incident led to a statewide manhunt that lasted more than a week.
In the aftermath, many questioned the security lapses in the Orange County jails that led to the escape. A grand jury investigation concluded that deputies were not adequately trained and supervised by managers, leading to security and policy violations.
Former Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said at the time that the jail break was an “embarrassment” and acknowledged security flaws in the jail that needed to be changed.
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