Fifteen individuals filed a federal class action lawsuit Wednesday against San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon and the county over discriminatory policies at the West Valley Detention Center that deny gay, bisexual and transgender inmates equal access to work, recreation and rehabilitative programs solely based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) and the law firm of Kaye, McLane, Bednarski & Litt, LLP. It charges the county’s policy is unconstitutional and violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection to all individuals.
Currently, individuals held in the jail’s general population area have access to myriad services, including work and rehabilitative programs that allow inmates to earn time credits and reduce their sentences. Individuals who are gay, bisexual and transgender are housed in the “alternative lifestyle tank,” where they are denied access to those same programs. As a result, individuals who are gay, bisexual and transgender are forced to serve longer sentences than other inmates convicted of the exact same offense.
And unlike inmates in the general population, gay, bisexual and transgender inmates are confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day.
“While jail officials have an obligation to keep all inmates safe from harm, they cannot achieve that goal by subjecting individuals who are gay, bisexual and transgender to harsher conditions, or by denying them access to services simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Melissa Goodman, Director of the ACLU SoCal’s LGBT, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project. “Such policies are unconstitutional and unwise. Inmates who are provided vocational training and treatment services are more likely to find work, stay clean, and ultimately remain out of the criminal justice system. That’s good for taxpayers and public safety.”
Dan McKibben is among the inmates affected by the county’s discriminatory policy. McKibben, who identifies as gay and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, sought to participate in the work, vocational and educational programs offered to other inmates. His requests were denied, as were similar appeals to participate in religious services. While at the jail, he was subject to insults and harassment by staff, and was unable to obtain medical treatment for his congestive heart failure and diabetes.
“For months, we have found case after case of individuals who are gay, bisexual and transgender who are subject to the kind of lock down detention reserved for the most hardened criminals,” said David McLane, an attorney with Kaye, McLane, Bednarski & Litt, LLP. “There is no reasonable explanation for this two-tier system of justice that denies some inmates access to the most basic programs in education, work and drug rehabilitation based on little more than their gender identity or sexual orientation. The law does not permit local law enforcement to discriminate or dehumanize an individual simply because they are gay, bisexual and transgender yet that is what officials have been allowed to do at the West Valley Detention Center. It’s unlawful and must stop.”
The lawsuit seeks to require San Bernardino County and the sheriff’s department to provide all inmates equal access and treatment to programs, as required by state and federal law.