Who'll Stop the Pain?

A recent spate of suicides and strange deaths inside Orange County's jails has jail staff and activists alike clamoring for reform

Who'll Stop the Pain?

In the entrance bay to the Orange County Jail's Intake and Release Center (IRC) in Santa Ana, there is a pair of signs, the first things anyone who has just arrived behind bars will see. One sign, the more prominent one, warns prisoners they "must obey all directions of staff" and not "create a disturbance in the jail," or else they risk "loss of privileges," including use of recreational areas and access to telephones, as well as facing "disciplinary isolation." Another sign on the side of the wall near a clerical desk, which apparently is meant to be facetious, is more blunt: "No Whining."

It was about 9 in the morning on March 17, 2010, and a group of lawyers, inmate-rights activists and two newspaper reporters—the Weekly's R. Scott Moxley and myself—was assembled in the entrance area of the jail. For the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD), which runs the county's detention facilities, the purpose of the gathering was to demonstrate how much conditions have improved since the most brutal murder behind bars in county history happened under its watch.

On Oct. 5, 2006, a Mission Viejo software engineer named John Chamberlain died at the hands of dozens of his fellow prisoners who suspected him of being a child molester. His slaying led to murder charges against nine inmates, as well as the firing of several deputies who had either been involved in the incident or who obstructed the homicide investigation and grand-jury probe that followed. Amid accusations of a cover-up by sheriff's officials, the grand jury released a thousands-pages-long report on April 7, 2008, that detailed how guards routinely used the various race-based jail gangs to enforce order, with vicious beatings being a daily occurrence.

By the day of the sheriff's department's "truth" tour, they wanted to dismiss that ugly episode as distant history. Mike Carona, who was sheriff at the time of Chamberlain's murder, was long gone, having resigned in a cloud of corruption that eventually led to his federal felony conviction for witness tampering. His replacement, Sandra Hutchens, immediately launched a top-to-bottom reform of the department, further purging the deputies and supervisors who let the horrific jailhouse beating take place. The tour was a grand opportunity for the agency to demonstrate its newfound transparency.

It began with a stroll through the IRC's so-called "loop," where the department screens inmates for any illness or psychological conditions. The entrance had been cleared of inmates, with the exception of four bleary-eyed hipsters who offered embarrassed smiles while lounging behind a glass window in their holding cell. As the tour group moved farther down the loop, other holding cells contained more inmates who had been arrested within the past 12 hours, including an elderly bearded man who repeatedly banged his forehead on the glass. A larger cell housed roughly a dozen bald Latinos in wife-beater T-shirts and baggy cutoff shorts, all of whom sprang from their seats into menacing postures complete with narrowed, glaring eyes as the group passed by them.

A few minutes later, we observed a station where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents screen inmates suspected of being illegal immigrants. We saw the jail's medical ward (complete with a rubber room that housed a restraining bed), the rooftop recreational area where well-behaving prisoners can play handball for 90 minutes twice a week, and the protective-custody ward.

Eventually, the tour group passed through a long, hall-like observation deck with tinted glass that prevented inmates from seeing anything but their shadows. Most prisoners, including one who lay on his bunk reading a copy of The Rise and Fall of Nazi Germany, failed to notice us. However, one white inmate with a shaved head and bloodshot eyes smiled perversely at the shadows he perceived beyond the darkened glass and began to disrobe.

We moved on. Indeed, after being inside for this relatively short time, everyone seemed desperate to get back to the free world as quickly as possible.

While we wound through the jail, the same feeling of desperation must have plagued the mind of 42-year-old methamphetamine addict Michelle Gee. She'd been arrested the day before after admitting in court during a drug-diversion hearing that she had relapsed and was back on drugs. "She broke down and told them she needed help and couldn't do it by herself," her mother, Karen Shue, says. "They said they'd get her help. They made arrangements to put her in the medical ward [of the jail] and treat her."

Although Gee was placed in Module K, where inmates are supposedly under medical supervision, she, like all meth addicts who are arrested in Orange County, received no drugs to help her handle withdrawal symptoms. In addition, one of her feet was infected with a painful staph infection. Gee telephoned a family friend on the morning of March 17, after a tough night in jail, to say she still hadn't been given any medication.

Around 4:15 that afternoon, about four hours after the jail tour ended, a registered nurse discovered Gee hanging from the top bunk of her two-person cell—she had no cellmate—and yelled for deputies to help cut her down. The sheet was too thick for guards to cut with their safety knives, according to an incident report on her death, so they untied the knot, laid her down on the floor and attempted to resuscitate her. Twelve minutes later, emergency workers with the Santa Ana Fire Department took over and, failing to revive her, pronounced her dead.

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19 comments
Methamphetamine Addiction
Methamphetamine Addiction

But they are also battling the demons of meth addiction - working hard to stay sober for themselves and for their family. Melissa's story. "My mom didn't use drugs. She raised me well. But she was murdered in 2001

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Guest
Guest

There is no reason to believe Taylor died due to suicide...that is the story OC Jail stated. Who knows...whatever....they were responsible for his wellbeing...they failed one way or another...and now he is gone.

Safetymom
Safetymom

What a disgrace. This story is pathetic and OC Weekly should be ashamed of themselves for posting it.

First of all, lets do the math 8 people out of 5000 had lost their lives in the OC jail in one year. In other words .16% of inmates had died one year do to homocide or suicide. That being the case, I applaude our jails for taking such good care in protecting and caring for those who are incarcerated.

The fact of the matter is, the suicide and homocide rate for the general public is far higher than for those who are incarcerated in the OC Jail system. It should also be noted that you have less of a chance of dying in our OC jails than you do in a hospital due to simple human error (wrong meds, wrong dose, unknown allergies to meds, mixing a deadly combination of meds).

This story is all hype and while I feel bad for the loss of anyone's life and the suffering their family endures, there is no real story here. Suicides and homocides happen all the time, they just happen less in our jails. The author is playing on our sympathies. What is worse is this story is written solely to make our jails and the officers who operate them appear incompetent.

Instead of writing stories to try and make others look bad, I recommend that the author use his writing skils to encourage the public to vote for better drug rehab for idiots.

Ageofknowledge
Ageofknowledge

I love your passion and you make a good point; however, I do remember that Berkley study as well from the 70's. They took modern liberal touchy feely emotionaly empathetic college students and had them play the role of jail guard. Over the course of the study they eventually became abusive and hardened. It really happened. Does it excuse the behavior? No. Is that what happens much of the time to the people that have to work with society's criminals in the jails as guards? Yes. That truth should be respected.

Steve1472
Steve1472

The solution is to only arrest healthy mentally stable people. If a drunk driver has hypertension or a carjacker has depression they should just let them go.

Ocemploy
Ocemploy

They don't do their supposed 30 minute check like they are supposed to in order to protect the inmates. And the ICE detainee's are overcrowding the facilities due to the $118 the county recieves per day they are there, staff infection is on a rampage there and as "punishment" when one person ruins it fot the other 140 people in the dorms, showers are taken away. (yes they punish everyone when one person does something wrong such as getting caught doing sit ups) Not to mention they totally encourage racisim although bunk all races together and let your "own race" get after you for association. Great system we have. I'm sure not voting for anyone that is currently in offiice. I hope this article has an impact. Thanks for writting.

Shaniqua Donk
Shaniqua Donk

Sadly even after the romodel and "reform" which took place after the beating of John Derek Chamberlain there are still many blind spots in the Theo Lacy facility. Beatings still occur regularly and the Correctional Officers still appoint and encourage "Shot Callers" for each race within a barrack, which encourages an inmate hierarchy. The inmates are not allowed to go to bed until at least ten and often breakfast is at 4AM. There is no exercise allowed of any sort which provides no releif of any pent up tension. Medical requests take often three days to even be called in to answer questions while the inmate is accused of lying about their needs. Allong with Ms. Gee there are many addicts and non violent offenders placed with violent people often awaiting a transfer to prison, although this is too the fault of the Judges and D.A's who refuse to offer treatment as an alternative sentence and want to see "time served". Thank you for the article in an attempt to expose the inside of the OC Jail system although I sadly doubt anything will change unless there is another great exposure such as Carona's situation who is now going to summer camp in Colorado. I say send that guy to Pelican Bay where he belongs. Better yet, put him in OCJ to show him what a great place he oversaw. He'd really get a taste of his own medicine then.

Reddbrique
Reddbrique

I was in the Lacy Facility when an elderly gentlemen(I'm 54 and he was older than me by a good few years) in the chain gang kept complaining about feeling weak and not getting his medicine. He sat down on the bench so I sat down next to him and asked if he was OK. An officer immediately noticed us sitting down and came charging over screaming the usual, "what the f###'s going on..." I explained that the man was sick and he had a history of strokes. The officer was obviously in the wrong but instead of doing anything to help he just said to me, "well your not sick so why are you sitting down?" I didn't want to push my luck so I just got up and when the line moved on the old man got up too. They pulled him out of the line about 20 mins later right when we were boarding the bus to court.It was hard to get this incident off my mind for a long time. When the officer first came over to the old man and myself I panicked because I thought I was going to get in trouble for sitting down. I thought why the hell do I care about this old man that I'll never see again as long as I live. Then I kept getting these images in my head from the footage taken inside the Nazi concentration camps. I always used to wonder how people could stand by while other people around them were being brutalized. Now I know!

Reddbrique
Reddbrique

I was in the Lacy Facility when an elderly gentlemen(I'm 54 and he was older than me by a good few years) in the chain gang kept complaining about feeling weak and not getting his medicine. He sat down on the bench so I sat down next to him and asked if he was OK. An officer immediately noticed us sitting down and came charging over screaming the usual, "what the f###'s going on..." I explained that the man was sick and he had a history of strokes. The officer was obviously in the wrong but instead of doing anything to help he just said to me, "well your not sick so why are you sitting down?" I didn't want to push my luck so I just got up and when the line moved on the old man got up too. They pulled him out of the line about 20 mins later right when we were boarding the bus to court. It was hard to get this incident off my mind for a long time. When the officer first came over to the old man and myself I panicked because I thought I was going to get in trouble for sitting down. I thought why the hell do I care about this old man that I'll never see again as long as I live. Then I kept getting these images in my head from the footage taken inside the Nazi concentration camps. I always used to wonder how people could stand by while other people around them were being brutalized. Now I know!

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Nschou
Nschou

What's a homocide?

RespectfulOpposition
RespectfulOpposition

Yeah, the Zimbardo prison experiment. I studied that in college. That wasn't about taking liberals and hardening them. What happened was, they divided people up in to two groups - the prisoners, and the guards. Then they simulated a jail scenario. The key finding of that experiment was that the faux-prisoners became submissive and weak while the faux-jailers became brutish and aggressive. It's beyond well-documented.

Michael Wasserman
Michael Wasserman

I believe you mean the Stanford experiments. The experiments used a group of people who were not selected based on political ideology. They weren't touchy, feely, emotional, or any other synonym for soft. They were college student who responded to a newspaper ads. The experiment also set the bar for what is no longer allowed in psychological experiments because of what happened due to a prison simulation.

You can read about it here:http://www.prisonexp.org/

Nschou
Nschou

You should be glad stupidity isn't a crime--there'd be a bunk with your name on it, for sure. Sorry, just being clever....

 
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