Lights on in a Dark Place: OC Jail’s policy of midnight releases.

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[Orange Juicers, please welcome our new journalist, Ted Tipton! – V.]

On one side of the street the Orange County Central Jail sits ominously in the dark lit by only a few street lamps and the light of the moon. Across the street the roar of a generator is heard in the quiet of midnight in Santa Ana. The generator fuels the portable lighting in front of a thirty-five year old motor-home. The light illuminates the tables, chairs and resources made available to inmates, most of whom will be released from jail between midnight and 4am. They also illuminate a growing concern: the lack of resources available to those who are about to be turned loose on the city streets in the middle of the night.

Randy McMahon, a retired 26 year veteran of the US Marine Corps, maintains a command presence behind the tables. He dedicates a good deal of his time volunteering with the St. Vincent De Paul Society of Orange County. His main project is running this small oasis in the dark. It is called “Lights On” and was created about seven years ago through detention ministries. Attention was being brought to fact that Orange County, like most counties, has a policy of releasing inmates throughout the night.

Unfortunately, resources made available to an inmate on their way out the door are limited. An alternative was established by volunteers such as Randy. The tables have several used cell phones charged and ready to go. Coffee, cookies and doughnuts all stand ready. While McMahon stuffs another round of tobacco into his pipe a “client” asks for a light. A literature rack stands by with everything from bus schedules to Alcoholics Anonymous fliers.

According to Randy there are about thirteen volunteers committed to the program. Most of them, he explains, “come out once and they’re hooked.” The RV we stood in front of was donated as were the food, chairs and other miscellaneous items they drag out seven nights a week. I asked Randy, “With nothing open nearby and no buses running, why are the inmates coming out at these hours?” He told me he “hasn’t been able to confirm that.” He does know that most other counties engage in the same practice but that the Lights On volunteer program appears to be the only one of its kind.

I contacted the Sheriff’s Department for official comment on the policy. After thirteen phone calls and no clear explanation (except one Deputy who told me that, “They release them at night so they don’t see the people coming in.”) I was able to speak with John McDonald, Manager of Public Relations. He advised me to send him an email with my questions and that they would be in touch.

A couple of days later I was referred to Greg Boston, Administrative Manager for Inmate Services. I spoke with Boston and Division Commander Sharon Gibson who insisted to me that many resources are available to inmates during their time in jail. Boston claimed that Orange County is actually an innovator in identifying offenders who are at risk and working with them prior to release to help them avoid returning to jail.

Approximately 80% of inmates have some form of substance abuse problem and as a result they try to steer these offenders toward programs that will help end the cycle of addiction. Commander Gibson was quick to inform me that participation in the programs offered is strictly voluntary. She extolled the virtues of the Resource Center on Main Street that makes services and networking resources available to the recently released who may need help with anything from finding a place to stay to counseling. Gibson stressed that, “the first 72 hours after an inmate is released is critical.” The resource center is only a few blocks away but unfortunately is only open during office hours Monday through Friday.

When we finally got back to the original question which is, “Why are inmates, both male and female, released to dark streets where nothing is open for many blocks and resources are not available?”  They stated that was not really their department and that I would need to speak to Commander Kea at the jail.

Commander Steve Kea was quick to inform me that inmates are released all day long. It is, he explained, a lengthy and difficult process to release an inmate. Record checks have to be made in case other agencies have placed holds on a particular inmate. Of course if an inmate isn’t released by the day they are due a lawsuit may ensue.

Kea was quick to deny a rumor I had heard over and over again, claiming the jail does not receive money from the state on a per day per bed basis. The only “bed rate we receive is from the Feds for ICE detainees.” When immigration and Customs Enforcement needs to hold detainees in the area they effectively pay rent to the jail. I asked him about the potential for danger in the middle of the night by so many offenders being released. He said he was “unaware of any incidents.”

One former inmate who allowed me to use his name, Vern Nelson, who was incarcerated in the Theo Lacy branch of the OC Jail in 2004, told me, “About ninety percent of us were let out just after midnight, on our release dates.  That is, everyone who wasn’t going into a program or getting deported to Mexico.  It’s what we all expected.  Some of us were lucky enough to have someone who could pick us up at that hour, others just wandered around all night.  We didn’t complain about being let out one hour into our release day – any hour you don’t have to be in jail is a great hour.  Everyone’s assumption was that this cut down on the facility’s costs and overcrowding, while they still got credit for keeping us there that day – and whatever funding comes with that.”

Several other inmates I spoke with, who did not want their names mentioned, agreed that the only people who get released during the day are those being transferred into some type of program. Many of them had been inside the jail before and only had the experience of midnight to 4am releases. “There’s nothing open, the buses aren’t running and we are sent out in the cold to figure out where to go”, one inmate informed me. Pointing to McMahon he added, “This guy is a lifesaver.”

One story I was told was that of a young man who was escorted out to McMahon by Deputies who informed him that this man was in need of his help. It turned out that he was suicidal and the volunteers had to call on the Santa Ana Police Department for assistance. The troubled man was ultimately hospitalized.

Another concern of the Lights On volunteers is for the safety of young female inmates released. McMahon has had to run off unscrupulous cab drivers who offer rides in exchange for sexual favors. One recently released young woman said she felt much safer waiting near the RV for her ride. These reasons and many other concerns are what keep the motorhome lights going night after night. As he lit his pipe again McMahon told me that last year they serviced some 9000 inmates upon release. “This year we are on target to serve 12,000.”

Commander Kea did indicate that he would like to see more resources made available both inside and outside of the jail. Of course, additional resources require additional funding as well as political will; both of which seem to be in short supply these days.


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