Thursday, June 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Escape Leads OC Jailers to Sue Over Staffing

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) - The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs sued their employer over unsafe working conditions following the escape and ensuing manhunt of three dangerous inmates last month.

The association claims the Orange County Central Men's Jail is an unsafe working environment and is an unsafe location to house dangerous, hardened criminals.

According to the lawsuit filed Feb. 11 in Orange County Superior Court, the association also says many security concerns have been brought to the attention of Sheriff's Department management over several years. Managers either dismissed or ignored the concerns staffing cuts led to the perfect storm that enabled the three dangerous inmates to escape, the association claims in its suit.

The Central Men's Jail was opened in 1967 to mainly house misdemeanor inmates, but has in recent years transformed into a "state prison environment" following prison realignment, according to the complaint. The association claims the changing prison environment has led to more frequent and severe inmate-on-inmate assaults and an increasing amount of contraband has also been brought into the jail.

Association members say the jail currently houses about 1,000 inmates, the majority of which have been charged with a felony and are awaiting trial or have already been convicted of a felony, according to the complaint. The association claims with the changing inmate demographic, the bar for low-level criminals known as "white-banders" has been raised and more dangerous criminals are included in the classification.

The three inmates who escaped on Jan. 22 - Bac Duong, Hossein Nayeri and Jonathan Tieu - were all classified as white-banders. According to the complaint both Duong and Tieu were documented Vietnamese gang members and were awaiting trial on separate attempted-murder charges while Neyeri was extradited to Orange County after he fled to Iran to avoid being arrested in the kidnapping and torture of a Newport Beach marijuana dispensary owner.

All three inmates were housed in the same dormitory-style area, which the association claims "is clearly evidence of the ever increasingly dangerous jail environment."

They were on the run for more than a week.

The association also claims staffing changes at the jail over recent years, including a decrease in staffing, has contributed to a more dangerous environment.

In 2010, the jail replaced the most experienced deputies with civilian correctional services assistants who are not allowed to have direct inmate contact. The services assistants receive 10 weeks of training compared to the six months of training sheriff's deputies receive, according to the complaint.

On the night of the inmate escape, the night-shift staff was reduced by 22 percent with no staff members assigned to roof watch. Association members brought concerns about the removal of roof deputies to department management prior to the Jan. 22 escape, according to the complaint.

The association claims the dearth of staffing has allowed the jail to become more dangerous. Officers conduct less frequent random sweeps and searches of inmate housing and cannot properly monitor people who come in and out of jail.

Additionally, inmates do not receive proper medical and dental services, too many inmates receive hot meals at one time and a lack of functioning radio sets hamper communication between jail staff, the complaint says.

Two other major incidents happened the day the inmates escaped, including a fight in which a deputy broke his hand and an in-custody death which was investigated by the District Attorney's office.

In a letter addressed to the supervisors on Feb. 18, Sheriff Hutchens poked holes in the lawsuit, saying "assertions that the department is not moving quick enough are blatantly false."

Hutchens also claimed the department's internal investigation has not yet determined if a lack of staffing was a causal factor in the escape. She told the board she would make requests for funding to implement solutions "only when I can justify that a given funding request is based on a functional necessity, not a haphazard response to external pressure."

Orange County Sheriff's Department Public Information Officer Mark Stichter said immediately following the inmate escape, areas of the jail that were compromised during the escape were repaired and secured. Stichter said the jail is "100 percent safe now."

The department will not comment on details of the lawsuit, but Stichter said they were disappointed they couldn't work with the association outside of court.

"We are disappointed the lawsuit was filed because there's a cooperative process that goes forward and that was completely bypassed," Stichter said.

An internal investigation by the sheriff's department into the inmate escape will be completed within a year, according to Stichter.

In a letter sent to Hutchens on Jan. 29, association president Tom Dominguez called for the immediate removal of Capt. Chris Wilson, whom the association claims directed deputies to ignore department protocol on inmate counts in the year leading up to the escape.

Dominguez also called for an independent review of jail management by an outside entity.

"The sheriff has a history of refusing to address these issues and once again has made it clear she has no immediate intention of correcting these unsafe staffing levels, choosing instead to accept the fact that the current staffing levels are capable of maintaining control of the inmates," Domingez said in a written statement.

"This is exactly why we are insisting on an independent outside investigation and staffing analysis which we firmly believe will show that the staffing at the Central Men's Jail is woefully inadequate and mismanaged."

The association's lawsuit names Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Sandra Hutchens, the Orange County Sheriff's Department, Orange County and its board of supervisors as defendants. It wants a court order to return staffing levels to where they were before a unilateral change that violated the bargaining process and a declaration that the change violated the officers' bargaining rights under the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act.

Adam Chaikin of Olins Riviere Coates & Bagula in San Diego represents the association.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to meet with Hutchens in closed session tomorrow to discuss security at the jail and the status of the internal investigation.


Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.