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EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: Orange County Jail up close and personal

During the Laguna Beach Police Department Citizen Academy class, we got to see most of the places that police do their jobs: the city jail, dispatch, the briefing room, even the watch commander’s office.

The city jail itself is dinky; there are only a few cells for suspects, separated by gender, aside from the “drunk tank” — a large room with a big drain in the middle which can be hosed down after use. It’s not pleasant to think about, but it is a place where someone can safely sober up without hurting themselves or others.

The cells — and the sobering cell — were clean, and on the night we visited they were empty; no overnight guests.

Having seen the inside of the drunk tank, it was very interesting to watch one of our classmates get into a condition that could have put her there.

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Sobriety test

City Treasurer Laura Parisi volunteered to take a demonstration field sobriety test. But this was to be no mere demonstration: she actually had to get drunk first.

At the beginning of the class, Parisi was presented with her own bottle of wine — a nice red — and during the first half of the class she drank it all.

The effects of the alcohol were soon evident: red face and a big grin. Parisi — the city official entrusted with keeping the keys to the municipal treasury — was feeling no pain!

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Then the department’s most-honored DUI Officer, Jenny Jones, put the slap-happy treasurer through the standard test to see if she was too drunk to drive.

We’ve all seen this test in news snippets, but to actually watch it administered was enlightening.

A lot of us thought this test would not be easy to pass no matter how sober one might be: you have to follow the officer’s orders exactly and lift one leg a certain way to a certain height, then the other.

Imagine being pulled over in traffic at night and being ordered to perform calisthenics on a busy roadway — or you’re going directly to jail.

It wasn’t surprising when Parisi failed that part, even though we all agreed she made a good college try.

Then came the breathalyzer test, and numbers don’t lie. her blood alcohol level registered at .12 — one third over the legal limit. If she had gotten into the driver’s seat, she could have been on the way to the sobering cell!

Instead, Parisi got the “good sport” award from the class for her performance — and a ride home in a police car.

Mock scenarios

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One of the most exciting nights of the class was when we all got to put on bullet-proof vests, Sam Brown belts, holsters with guns (loaded with blanks) and flashlights.

We were told to pair up, and two-by-two class members went down to the parking area behind the police station, where we were instructed in the fine points of making a traffic stop.

The stops were progressively more difficult, and we were told not to reveal what we had experienced so as not to spoil it for classmates.

A tourist in hell

Visiting the city jail was illuminating, but the trip to the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana felt like being a tourist in hell.

It started with the introductory remarks from a sheriff’s deputy, who spoke to us in a windowless room that was used for training exercises and had a large, battered mannequin standing in the corner which was apparently used to demonstrate restraint techniques.

I won’t tell you where most of the battering appeared to have taken place on this faceless dummy, but he looked like a “Mr. Bill” victim.

This deputy shocked a lot of us by announcing that he rejected any notion of “rehabilitation” of prisoners — because, he said, the overwhelming majority of inmates end up back in jail, whether or not they are given training and education.

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The prison guards oversee about 2,600 prisoners, and work three and four-day weeks with 12-hour shifts. Sheriff’s deputies must work for seven years in the jail before they are eligible to become patrol officers.

Jailhouse riots

The deputy showed us some actual footage of Orange County Jail riots to get us in the proper frame of mind for what we were about to experience.

We saw prisoners battling each other in the cafeteria, using metal trays as weapons; fighting in the exercise area with fists; and, in one particularly gruesome scenario, an incident in which a deputy had all his fingers broken in a fight with an out-of-control prisoner.

Then we were told we would be going into the depths of the jail itself, where we would encounter prisoners who were presumably similar to those we had just seen committing assault and battery.

We had already been warned that the jail has a “no hostage bargaining” policy. In other words, if an inmate takes you hostage during your visit, don’t expect the jailers to bargain for your life. But that’s a good thing, we were told, because it means they will have no reason to try it.

That was comforting.

‘Big high school’

Then another deputy — who seemed to have a more humane attitude toward his job and the inmates — described the jail as being “like a big high school,” noting that we should expect to see inmates walking around unescorted.

Given the previous instruction in just how violent these fellows can be, we were taken aback by this news, but he explained the reason for this “honor system.”

This is because, given the low inmate-to-guard ratio, inmates who could be trusted are given “hall passes” and monitored by overhead cameras as they go from one place to another, to reduce the number of guard escorts required.

Inmate processing

Thus assured of our safety — or lack thereof — the first area we were taken to was inmate-processing.

This is where the prisoners have all their belongings — and freedoms — taken away and it is where most of the problems occur, we were told. People can get a tad upset when they realize their every move from then on will be controlled.

The jail employees sit behind cages or glass. We were on the outside, of course, where the inmates would be — not a pleasant feeling.

We were then ushered past a series of glass-encased cells with grim-looking men behind them. This was our first glimpse of actual prisoners, some wearing the standard-issue orange jumpsuits, while others were still in their own clothes.

The “humane” deputy assured us that most inmates are so grateful to be allowed out on their own that they don’t try to break the rules.

‘Old’ men’s jail

Then we found ourselves in the bowels of the original men’s jail, the central lockup, built in 1968, where inmates are housed in cells that look like cages placed on top of each other. Their privacy is practically nil, and we had the disturbing sensation that at any moment we could see something best left behind closed doors.

The inmates are in their cells for 22 hours a day.

They are only allowed out for a two-hour period in the “day room” — a bleak area that provides some entertainment in the form of TV and where they can play board games.

Their day room stint can be at any time of the day or night. The schedule is intentionally varied so inmates can’t coordinate an attack on the guards, we were told.

For a few hours a week, they are taken to an outside exercise area to get some fresh air.

This may seem like just punishment for criminals, but, of course, many of these prisoners have not been convicted of a crime; they are awaiting trial and are therefore innocent until proven guilty.

In the darkest center of this place are housed the worst of the worst, those who can’t be trusted around other inmates. Their bad deeds have earned them the privilege of a private room.

New ‘mod’ jail

We then visited the “new” jail, a state-of-the-art detention center where the inmates and jailers are segregated as much as possible from each other, heightening safety.

In contrast to the sweaty humanity crowded together in the old jail, this new jail is antiseptic and sterile.

Men and women are housed here in specially constructed “modular” wings with remote-controlled access operated by guards inside a central “wheel.”

The guards communicate with their charges over an intercom system and lock and unlock doors remotely to allow the inmates to move about.

The guards rarely come into physical contact with inmates.

When the female inmates realized there were visitors, they stood at their doorways and talked and gestured at us, while the men turned their backs.

This is typical of the reaction of men and women in the jail system, we were told.

Commissary list

One of the guards passed around the jail commissary order slip, a list of items that inmates can purchase, such as soap, hand lotion, candy and nuts, beverages (including Chai tea latte and cappuccino), tuna fish, pudding, vitamins and other “extras.”

The charge for these items is interesting. One Tylenol pill, 50 cents; a multivitamin pill, $1.25 — limit one.

Toffee peanuts and the party mix top the snack list at 10 pieces for $1.45.

The most expensive item? Comb-in conditioner, $5.85.

You have to wonder how Paris Hilton — sentenced to serve 45 days in jail — would like staying at this hotel.

The Laguna Beach Police Department will offer another Citizen Academy in September. To learn more, call Sgt. Darin Lenyi at (949) 497-0375.


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