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Calif. sheriff’s department to make landmark changes to its jails for LGBTQ inmates

The changes would put the Orange County jail system ahead of other facilities statewide, a disability rights attorney said

By Tony Saavedra
The Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has closed the jail’s 72 “hyper-solitary confinement” cells and is improving conditions for LGBTQ inmates under a landmark agreement with a statewide disability rights group.

Sheriff’s officials, under the threat of a lawsuit by Disability Rights California, agreed to major changes at the jails, including the establishment of a housing area with enhanced programming for the LGBTQ community.

“This agreement and ongoing improvements to intake, housing, and programs will ensure that OCSD continues to securely house individuals in our custody while improving outcomes and reducing recidivism,” Sheriff Don Barnes said in a prepared statement.

Aaron Fischer, a lawyer working with the disability group, said the changes would put the Orange County jail system ahead of other facilities statewide.

“It’s a very big deal that helps set new standards for California jails and beyond,” Fischer said. “They’re taking steps that, if successful, would separate them from the pack.”

A 2019 audit by Sabot Consulting for the disability rights group found several deficiencies in Orange County’s jail system.

Disabled inmates were not given equal access to programs and some inmates were locked in cells for most or all of the day, the audit found. Also, LGBTQ inmates were placed in restrictive, high-security units solely because of their sexual identity.

At Theo Lacy jail in Orange, the now-closed disciplinary isolation cells lacked natural light and had only a door window that was often covered. Those cells have been closed.

Now the department has created a new unit where inmates can be kept no longer than 30 days, must be let out of their cells at least two hours a day and can be released early based on their behavior.

The plan also calls for LGBTQ inmates to be incarcerated in the least restrictive, safe setting. Transgender and intersex inmates — that is, people born with a sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit with male or female — would be housed according to their preference, unless authorities find specific management or security problems.

Additionally, inmates will receive at least 24 hours a week of time out of their cells. This means, the department would have to keep open its day rooms and exercise yards all day. No more would housing units be locked down as a general rule.

In another important concession, disabled inmates would no longer be excluded from the jail’s Community Work Program, which allows people to work in the community and sleep at home.

“The removal of this disability-based exclusion will expand the use of safe and productive alternatives to incarceration, and put an end to a discriminatory practice,” said a statement from Disability Rights California.

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