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.

Jonathan Bartlett
Jonathan Bartlett

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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