An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) study determined the sheriff’s department fails to meet physical security, medical and mental health care standards inside Orange County jails, an assertion Sheriff Sandra Hutchens called “inaccurate or purposely distorted.”
The 108-page ACLU report, released Tuesday, cited abuses like deputies’ violence against inmates, deputies’ instigation of fights between inmates and inmates’ fears of retaliation from deputies when bringing these criticisms to a higher authority. The complaints came from more than 120 former or current inmates who were jailed during the past seven years.
But Hutchens told a news conference Wednesday “I’m not going to call it (the ACLU report) an investigation because it doesn’t rise to that level in my mind… From 2011 to 2017 the Orange County jail system had over 350,000 bookings. The more than 120 individuals surveyed by ACLU represent only .0003% of total bookings.”
She said “the ACLU report to me has no value.”
The ACLU report includes several recommendations for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD), which runs the jails. Hutchens said most of the recommendations already have been implemented.
Citing prior District Attorney and Orange County Grand Jury investigations into allegations of abuse, the report claimed the Sheriff’s Department “is tasked with investigating itself.” The report said because of that it is “not surprising most cases of deputy misconduct or abuse never get to the district attorney or grand jury” and called for the establishment of an impartial oversight body.
“The need for oversight that is neutral and objective is profound… Such a body could thoroughly investigate and report allegations of transgressions or abuses of power among OCSD deputies and decrease the number of lawsuits,” the report said.
Hutchens responded, “the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has implemented 107 of the actions recommended by the report. The one recommendation not followed is an outside oversight committee.” She did not say if she supported outside oversight.
Hutchens said she is interested in knowing why the people interviewed did not come forward while in custody and said her department has “a number of methods” for inmates to report their grievances.
“We’ve made it very easy for them to report anonymously,” Hutchens said. “We have inmate grievance forms that can be filled out and put in a box and followed up and catalogued.”
Some of the inmates interviewed expressed in the report their inability to air their grievances because they feared repercussions from jail staff.
One person under the pseudonym “Omar,” interviewed after his release from jail, said he did not submit a complaint while in custody because “there’s a clear understanding that if you complain, you will be retaliated against.”
“Other incarcerated individuals reported that jail staff regularly discourage people from submitting grievances, and in some cases threaten them to not do so,” according to the report.
An inmate currently in custody interviewed under the name “Lily” claimed the grievance forms are “too hard and dangerous to get” and alleged inmates must “verbally request slips from deputies.”
The report stated “custody staff neglect to provide individuals with grievance forms in a timely and professional manner.”
“According to department policy, grievance forms should be available in all housing locations,” the report said. “While some individuals claimed that forms are not readily available, others complained that deputies blatantly denied them access to forms.”
The sheriff also said the jail’s facilities are inspected regularly by multiple government agencies and independent oversight authorities, which “generally result in positive reviews of our jails” and often find that “jails meet current state and federal standards for custody operations.”
Hutchens said among the agencies which inspect the jails are the Board of State and Community Corrections, the US Department of Justice, Orange County Health Care Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, and said members of the community are often welcome to tour the department.
“We take tours of the jail regularly, so if we had anything to hide I don’t think we’d be having people come in to our jail,” she said.
ACLU of Southern California Director of Jails Esther Lim said in a later telephone interview that her organization “isn’t the first entity who has heard” of the conditions in their report.
“Honestly, the contents of the report isn’t anything new- it’s something that she (Hutchens) has known about and just has simply ignored,” Lim said.
The ACLU, at Tuesday morning’s Board of Supervisors meeting, called on Hutchens to resign. Later that day, the sheriff announced she wouldn’t seek re-election in 2018 and endorsed Undersheriff Don Barnes.
At her news conference Wednesday, Hutchens said “I already planned to make the announcement and quite frankly right before it came out [the announcement she wouldn’t seek re-election] is when I was told that the ACLU was at the Board of Supervisors meeting and was demanding my resignation. I have taken a lot of time away from my family.”
She also denied rumors her decision was prompted by any illness.
Read the full ACLU report here.
Jose Ochoa is a Voice of OC intern.