Low-level inmates clear out of a walkway for passing deputies at the Theo Lacy jail in Orange.
FILE PHOTO: JOSHUA SUDOCK, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
SANTA ANA – Lawsuits against the state prison system are filtering down to the local level, while Orange County officials continue to cautiously make major changes in local lockups.
With the state making court-mandated changes to its overcrowded prisons, county jails in recent months have seen more inmates, a higher demand for health services, longer sentences and convicts with more serious offenses on their record. The plan, known as “realignment,” has led to counties making changes to jails that were not designed to hold inmates for long sentences.
Now some counties are facing lawsuits from advocates of inmate’s rights, who allege that the jails have subpar conditions similar to those that sparked suits against the state’s prison system.
Alameda and Fresno were sued after the state’s prison realignment took effect in October 2011. Attorneys served Riverside County with a suit earlier this week and Monterey County is expecting a lawsuit. Orange County is not facing a suit, but officials said they are keeping a close eye on the pending court battles.
Sheriff’s officials said they have acted quickly to implement major changes in Orange County jails to accommodate the influx of state prisoners. They have proceeded cautiously, knowing they are under the careful scrutiny of government agencies and lawyers advocating for inmates’ rights.
“From the Sheriff Department’s perspective, it’s always been that way. We’ve always been under scrutiny,” said Cmdr. Steve Kea, who oversees jail operations. “We’re comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Visiting local jails
Inmate rights advocates have also been visiting county facilities to inspect housing and health care. Next week, officials expect attorneys to monitor parole hearings in Orange County.
“I think every sheriff’s department in the state will be,” under scrutiny, Kea said.
Yet, Orange County has been able to handle the influx better than many other counties. While some departments are already facing overcrowded jails, Orange County had empty beds when realignment was first implemented. The county leased some of the empty beds to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, helping bridge budget gaps.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has worked closely with other agencies – including the county’s Health Care Agency – to address demands in the jail, Kea said.
“The state didn’t have time to plan this, and some of it happened on the fly,” he said, calling it the “biggest culture change in a generation.”
In Orange County inmates are now serving longer sentences, leaving fewer empty beds and increasing the demand for services behind bars. In September 2012, the average sentence served in Orange County jail was 165 days, an increase of 52 days – or nearly 50 percent – when compared to January 2012.
Sheriff’s officials saw a surge in inmate requests to see a nurse, prompting the department to implement on March 1 a $3 visit fee to cut down on the number of frivolous requests. Since then, the department has seen a 50 percent reduction in requests, though they expect the number to gradually rise, Kea said.
Inmates won’t be denied care, Kea said, and those who can’t pay the fee will still be allowed to see a nurse.
Jail officials are now providing long-term health services that were not previously provided to inmates.
Officials were looking at setting up a dialysis station in Theo Lacy Jail, but never followed through on the plan because of costs.
“It just was a more complicated and expensive system than they expected,” Kea said. Inmates who need dialysis will continue being bused to West Anaheim Medical Center for the care.
Yet the Sheriff’s Department has been facing scrutiny even before realignment was implemented.
After the 2006 killing of John Chamberlain in Theo Lacy Jail, the Sheriff’s Department instituted several changes. At the time, deputies were found to be sleeping in the guard station, playing video games and using inmates to control other prisoners, a grand jury investigation found.
The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice opened a review of the county’s jail system in 2008. Federal officials are expected to close out the investigation this year.
Major changes have occurred since, and in 2009 a grand jury report applauded changes in the jail – most done under Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.
The department has also made several structural changes since a federal appellate court ruled the county was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lawsuit alleged the sheriff’s department was not providing disabled inmates access to facilities and programs.
Authorities are keeping a close eye on other lawsuits and rulings, as well as the needs of the inmates, Kea said.
“It’s also a matter of implementing as many things as you can,” he said. “It’s certainly a challenge.”
By SALVADOR HERNANDEZ/ ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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