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Troubles at California Jail Lead Sheriff to Forgo Reelection

by Derek Gilna

Orange County, California’s jail system has been a hotbed of abuses for many years, accumulating a reputation for lawlessness on the part of prisoners and staff members alike. [See: PLN, June 2018, p.28; Jan. 2016, p.29]. The inability of the current Sheriff-Coroner, Sandra Hutchens, to resolve problems at the county’s jails has apparently resulted in her unexpected decision to retire at the end of her term and not seek reelection.

That decision was announced in June 2017, hours after the release of a 108-page report that highlighted unsafe jail conditions and an epidemic of misconduct by staff during Hutchens’ tenure.

According to the ACLU of Southern California, which published the report, “Orange County has the second-largest jail system in California, with an average daily population of approximately 6,000 incarcerated individuals and roughly 64,000 annual bookings. In 2009, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) operated the ninth-largest jail system in the United States.”

The ACLU interviewed over 120 current and former prisoners using written questionnaires and personal interviews. Their findings revealed that “OCSD deputies use force [against prisoners] that is not proportionate to the threat presented in cases where infractions do occur or at times when infractions are not present. Force tends to be either excessive or unnecessary.

“Witness and personal accounts range from handcuffs being placed on too tight to deputies slamming incarcerated individuals against the wall and twisting their arms behind their backs. In cases where minor infractions did, in fact, result in the use of force, survey participants reported that the force utilized was not proportionate to the threat presented by, or the need to lawfully control, the individual in the particular situations,” the report added.

The ACLU also found that much of the misconduct by jail deputies occurred in situations involving “passive noncompliance” by prisoners, and the force used went beyond what was “necessary to ensure compliance.” Esther Lims, one of the report’s authors, noted that much of the abusive behavior by staff members was inexcusable.

“Obviously, Sheriff Hutchens is failing in operating the jails,” she said.

Other incidents in Orange County’s jail system included the July 3, 2017 death of prisoner Danny Pham, 27. Pham, serving a 180-day sentence, was celled with Marvin Magallanes, another prisoner facing multiple murder charges, who allegedly strangled him to death. Five jail deputies were suspended and Magallanes was subsequently charged with Pham’s murder.

Part of the disappointment with Hutchens was that she was supposed to be a reformer who would change the abusive culture in the Sheriff’s Office when she was appointed in 2008, following the indictment and conviction of her predecessor, former sheriff Michael S. Carona. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.49; Feb. 2009, p.1; July 2008, p.30]. But the reforms never materialized.

Although the OCSD criticized the ACLU report, saying it provided “a purposely distorted view” of problems in the jail system and included incorrect findings, it was clear that the well-researched and thorough review was an indictment of Hutchens’ tenure as sheriff.

The report made dozens of recommendations to improve jail operations, such as extensive retraining of guards in use of force, better record-keeping, the installation of additional surveillance cameras, improved treatment of prisoners with mental health problems and, most importantly, greater transparency.

The ACLU’s report also called on Sheriff Hutchens to resign – a suggestion that she apparently took to heart, though she insisted her decision to retire at the end of her term in 2018 was unrelated to the report’s findings. 



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