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August 15, 2018

Settlement Reached in ACLU Anti-Discrimination Lawsuit Against County

RIVERSIDE — For years, a group of people incarcerated in a San Bernardino County jail were locked in their cells for as much as 23 hours a day. They were not permitted to participate in the jail’s job training, educational, drug rehabilitation, religious or community re-entry programs.

The reason this group was treated far worse than the jail’s general population had nothing to do with convictions or criminal history. It was simply because they were gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and the law firm of Kaye, McLane, Bednarski & Litt LLP sought court approval of a proposed settlement with San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon in a federal class action lawsuit filed in 2014 on behalf of people who were housed in the so-called Alternative Lifestyle Tank of the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.

The proposed settlement, which calls for significant changes in jail housing; work and educational program availability; staff training; and the establishment of a no-tolerance policy for harassment of gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (GBTI) people in San Bernardino County jails, was filed in U.S. District Court in Riverside.

“Nobody should be forced to choose between their safety and equal treatment while in custody,” said ACLU SoCal Staff Attorney Brendan Hamme. “We appreciate the county’s commitment to substantially improving its policies and practices.”

The lead plaintiff in the case was Dan McKibben, a former sheriff’s deputy in Indiana who spent two months at the West Valley Detention Center in 2014 for a probation violation. Upon self-identifying as gay during the booking process, he was housed in the Alternative Lifestyle Tank where he was kept in his cell an average of 22-and-a-half hours a day. His repeated requests to participate in a work program were denied and he witnessed other residents of the housing unit being beaten and called derogatory names by sheriff’s deputies.

Sadly, McKibben died in 2016, but the case has continued in his name. A total of about 600 people were housed in the Alternative Lifestyle Tank between 2012 and 2018. There are 15 plaintiffs in addition to McKibben named in the case, including Lynn Price, a transgender woman.

“I was stuck in my cell for all but one or two hours a day.” Price said. “It felt so lonely and humiliating back then, seeing everyone else out and allowed to eat together, talk with each other. I’m relieved that San Bernardino has promised to create more humane conditions for people housed in the unit.”

Included in the settlement agreement are:

  • Expanded housing options for incarcerated gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.
  • The lifting of restrictions on participation in work, educational, religious and community re-entry programs.
  • The establishment of a committee — to include jail facility, medical, and social work personnel — to meet regularly with incarcerated gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people to discuss housing options that work for them as individuals, plus discrimination and other issues.
  • Comprehensive staff training on the needs of GBTI individuals; the right of incarcerated people to be free from sexual abuse and harassment; and the rights of both those who are incarcerated and staff to be free from retaliation when reporting such incidents.
  • A no-tolerance policy for harassment, including a prohibition on intentional misgendering of transgender and intersex people.
  • A new, individualized approach to housing placements for transgender people.
  • Improvements to medical treatment access, safety precautions, and privacy protections for incarcerated transgender people.
  • Renaming the housing area at West Valley Detention Center to the GBTI unit.

“Over the past 20-plus years of litigation against jails, it has been our experience that jail culture often undermines recognition of inmates’ humanity,” said David S. McLane of Kaye, McLane, Bednarski & Litt. “This culture had led to a complete disregard for inmates’ fundamental constitutional right to equal treatment. We are pleased that San Bernardino will now be a national example of how jails can provide equality without compromising safety.”

Read the settlement here: