Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Orange County Judge Rules That Sheriff’s ‘Blanket’ Shackling Practice Violates Prisoners’ Rights

People held in courthouse cells were shackled for up to 15 hours a day, and some were unable to eat, change menstrual pads, or use the bathroom, advocates say.

Photo by Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images.

Yesterday, a judge ordered the Orange County, California, sheriff’s department to end its indiscriminate practice of shackling prisoners in courthouse holding cells, saying it violates their constitutional rights. The department must show, on a case-by-case basis, “some level of need for shackling,” the order states.

“Blanket shackling of in custody defendants demeans the dignity of the court process, the court room and the defendant and violates the due process rights of the accused,” Orange County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Roberts wrote. “A system which holds the accused on the other side of a door in a courthouse, adjacent to the courtroom, for hours on the days that detainees are seeking to avail themselves of the court processes must accord the accused some level of human dignity.” 

Roberts stayed the order until Friday “while a viable alternative security plan is implemented,” she wrote. 

Attorneys with the public defender’s office had filed motions challenging the constitutionality of the practice, which began in October. “Judge Roberts’ ruling reflects the importance of guarding against the erosion of our clients’ constitutional rights and ensures that our incarcerated clients will be treated with dignity and respect while they are present at any Orange County courthouse,” assistant public defender Sara Ross wrote in an email to The Appeal. 

Shackling entails handcuffing a person, then attaching the cuffs to a chain around their waist, according to court documents. The belly chain is secured with a padlock. Prisoners, in testimony and affidavits, reported being shackled for up to 12 to 15 hours; the shackles were only removed during an appearance before a judge, according to Roberts’s order.

Blanket shackling of in custody defendants demeans the dignity of the court process, the court room and the defendant and violates the due process rights of the accused.

Judge Kathleen Roberts Orange County Superior Court

Prisoners who were shackled had difficulty performing basic tasks, such as using the bathroom, wiping themselves, changing a menstrual pad, breathing, or eating, according to court documents. On Oct. 24, a prisoner named Feliciano suffered a seizure while shackled in a courtroom holding cell, according to two affidavits submitted to the court. Feliciano, who was released on bail the next day, told an investigator with the public defender’s office that the shackles had prevented him from bracing his fall. The Appeal is using only Feliciano’s first name and that of other prisoners to protect their identities. 

After he fell, deputies entered the cell, held him down, and ordered him not to move, according to a statement by Joshua Doddridge, a public defender who witnessed the incident. Doddrige saw blood come from Feliciano’s mouth. While deputies took him out of the cell and nurses attended to him, he remained shackled, according to Doddridge. 

“I observed approximately 10 to 15 minutes into treatment, [Feliciano] complaining of pain to his arms and wrists and trying to move them,” Doddridge wrote. “I looked at his arms and noticed they were a reddish/purple color. The deputies told [Feliciano] to stop moving and to calm down.” 

Feliciano told the investigator that he awoke in the hospital, his hands and legs handcuffed to a bed, a belly chain still around his waist. 

In another affidavit, Taylor, who was incarcerated at the Orange County Women’s Jail, reported that she was unable to properly use a sanitary napkin while shackled. 

After two days at the jail, on Nov. 7, sheriff’s deputies woke her at 4 a.m. and told her to get ready for court. When she left her cell, a sheriff’s deputy handcuffed her wrists and attached the cuffs to a belly chain. After breakfast, she attempted to use a sanitary pad. “I had difficulty opening the feminine hygiene package and applying the hygiene pad to my underwear was nearly impossible,” she wrote. 

At about 7:30 a.m. she got on the bus to go to court in Newport Beach. She was placed in a cage without a seatbelt, she wrote. When the driver slammed the brakes, her head hit the cage, according to her affidavit. Throughout the day, she had difficulty eating, drinking, and using the bathroom. She was never brought before a judge, she wrote. Taylor returned to the jail at about 6 p.m. but the shackles were still not removed until about 7:15 p.m., according to her affidavit. The district attorney’s office chose not to file charges against Taylor and she was released that night, according to her affidavit. “I was humiliated and treated like an animal,” she wrote. 

Shackling a person in a holding cell, possibly for several hours, interferes with their ability to consult with counsel, communicate with the court, or focus, advocates argued. 

“They’re supposed to make the most important decisions of their lives,” said Ross of those held pretrial. “Here they are not able to use the bathroom adequately, not able to feed themselves adequately, and barely able to move.”

In one statement submitted to the court, a woman wrote that the shackles were a “significant factor” in her decision to accept a plea deal, against her attorney’s advice. “I did not wish to be transported to another court date where I would have to remain shackled in the holding area all day,” she wrote. 

Sheriff’s department spokesperson Carrie Braun did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment by press time. She told the Orange County Register this month that the department now uses belly chains when prisoners are transported to court. Previously, according to Braun, prisoners were handcuffed at the wrists and to each other.

“This new procedure allows each inmate to be restrained individually, while maintaining an appropriate level of security,” she told the paper. “The assertion there is no consideration given for constitutionally protected activities is patently false.” 

Before the department’s current shackling practice began, people were handcuffed during the ride from jail to court, but were not restrained while in the courthouse holding cells unless they had a history of escape attempts or particularly serious charges, according to Ross. The sheriff’s current practice makes no such individualized assessment. Roberts ruled that she would “defer to the expertise of the Sheriff’s department regarding the necessity for shackles during that phase of transportation,” though she also noted that security concerns had not been raised with the court when prisoners were not shackled. 

More than 3,000 people in Orange County jails had not been convicted as of June, according to state data. More than half of those incarcerated in Orange County jails in 2017 were Latinx, according to a public records request filed by the ACLU of Southern California. Nine percent were Black and 29 percent were white. 

The shackling practice is part of a pattern of abuse that the sheriff’s department has inflicted on people incarcerated in Orange County, according to Daisy Ramirez, Orange County jails conditions and policy coordinator with the ACLU of Southern California. The sheriff’s department has been accused of illegally listening to prisoners’ calls with their attorneys, using jailhouse informants to solicit confessions, and providing inadequate medical care

“As horrific and egregious as this is,” Ramirez said of the shackling practice, “it’s one of many things that are currently happening.”