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U.S. Justice Department probes Orange County jails

August 13, 2009 |  3:03 pm

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The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an extensive investigation into Orange County’s jail system, which for more than a decade has been mired in allegations that sheriff's deputies mistreated inmates and used excessive force to keep control inside the county’s five jails, the Sheriff’s Department has confirmed to The Times.

The Justice Department is examining various cases to determine whether there is a pattern of Orange County violating the civil rights of inmates. Among the more recent cases, an inmate was stomped to death by fellow prisoners after a deputy allegedly and erroneously told them he was child molester. A county grand jury later criticized the Sheriff's Department for trying to impede the investigation and concluded that there was evidence of rampant abuse at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange.

The Orange County district attorney earlier this year criticized deputies for a "code of silence" that hampered prosecutors' ability to investigate possible criminal activities by jailers. In addition, the Sheriff's Department has come under fire for using Taser stun guns on handcuffed or restrained inmates. Two inmates died after being stunned, and new Sheriff Sandra Hutchens ended the practice earlier this year.

The investigation, which falls under the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, has been underway for several months and may take more than a year to complete. If a pattern of misconduct is found, the Justice Department could seek a settlement or a court-ordered federal consent decree similar to the one brought against the Los Angeles Police Department after the Rampart corruption scandal. It took nearly a decade for the LAPD to have federal oversight lifted.

Orange County officials were not told why the investigation was initiated, and Justice Department officials would only confirm its existence. But the federal act outlines certain conditions that start such a process, among them whether the attorney general has reasonable cause to believe that people are being subject to “egregious or flagrant conditions which deprive” them of legal rights or causes them to “suffer grievous harm.”

—Tami Abdollah in Orange County

Full story: U.S. probes Orange County's jail system

Photo: An inmate was fatally beaten by fellow prisoners at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange after a sheriff's deputy erroneously told them that he was child molester. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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