Allegations of unsafe working conditions in the Orange County jail leveled by the union representing rank-and-file sheriff's deputies were addressed today by a sheriff's official, who said the department has a "deep concern about the welfare" of its employees.
Lt. Mark Stichter noted the union presented the lawsuit to the sheriff at 5 p.m. Thursday.
"The sheriff is going to need time to review that lawsuit obviously and to be able to respond to it next week,'' Stichter said.
The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs sued Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and the county late Thursday, alleging that directives from supervisors on inmate counts and other factors related to reducing jail overcrowding statewide have made the jails unsafe for the guards.
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The union says that staff reductions, including the removal of rooftop guards, have made the Men's Central Jail unsafe. Three inmates gained access to the rooftop in making their escape last month. How the inmates managed to escape is the focus of departmental review, Stichter said.
"Stemming from that deep concern about the welfare of our employees is the reason staffing is one of the many issues that are part of the ongoing review and administrative investigation into the jail escape," Stichter said.
One of the lawsuits more notable allegations is that the union has been "informed and therefore believes construction equipment has been inadvertently left behind by contractors inside the (Central Men's Jail) in areas easily accessible by inmates."
The union alleges that "Sawzall blades were discovered on two separate occasions in inmate housing locations just weeks prior to the Jan. 22, 2016, inmate escape."
The union further alleges that deputies working in that jail were "unaware of the discovery of these dangerous and potentially deadly weapons."
It has not been revealed what the inmates used to cut through bars and make their escape. The lawsuit also reveals that a deputy broke his hand during a fight, which investigators have previously said may have been a diversion to aid the escape.
Also, there was an in-custody death the same day as the escape, which also tied up the deputies working there, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that the state law aimed at reducing prison populations has made facilities such as the Central Men's Jail into a de facto prison with many more "hardened" inmates than ever before. The jail is also more dangerous because there are less deputies on staff as guards and more civilians.
Hutchens began using more civilian Correctional Services Assistants since January 2010 to hold down costs during the slumping economy, a sore point for the deputies union. The civilians undergo much less training than deputies - 10 weeks versus six months, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also alleges that an audit of the jail in 2008 contained many recommendations that were ignored, such as limiting one hot meal daily instead of two to cut down on the large number of inmates flowing in and out of the Chow Hall with inadequate staffing.
The lawsuit even alleges that there aren't enough batteries to run radios the deputies use to communicate with each other.
"We have been voicing our concerns about the safety at the Central Men's Jail for years," said union president Tom Dominguez. "Those longstanding concerns coupled with a more violent inmate population and the recent significant staffing reductions at the Central Men's Jail forced us to take immediate action and file this lawsuit. This is about the safety of our members, the jail staff, the inmates and ultimately the public we are sworn to protect."
The lawsuit claims the staffing reductions violated the union's collective bargaining agreement with management, so it seeks to have staffing increased.