LOS ANGELES (AP) — Gay, bisexual and transgender inmates filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against San Bernardino County and its sheriff, alleging they are kept in a segregated unit that doesn't give them equal access to rehabilitation services and work programs that could shorten their incarceration and help them learn job skills.
The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles and includes 15 plaintiffs, including current and former inmates at West Valley Detention Center, where San Bernardino County houses gay, bisexual and transgender inmates in a special unit known as the "alternative lifestyle tank."
The plaintiffs are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and another firm.
The Sheriff's Department had not seen the lawsuit and generally doesn't comment on pending litigation, spokeswoman Cindy Bachman said.
David Wert, a spokesman for the county, referred questions to the Sheriff's Department.
The complaint focuses on one county, but attorneys for the ACLU hope it will spur changes in how such inmates are treated far beyond California.
Jails often segregate such inmates from the general population to protect them from assaults, but that should not preclude equal access to services while in custody, said Melissa Goodman, an attorney for the ACLU of Southern California.
"Gay, bisexual and transgender inmates should not be forced to accept an additional layer of punishment as the price of safety," she said. "What's happening in San Bernardino County is particularly egregious, but unfortunately, it is not unique."
Inmates incarcerated in the specialized unit in San Bernardino County say they often get only 30 minutes a day out of their two-person cells — barely enough time to shower — and are fed inside their cells even though a nearby day room has 15 tables.
They also claim they were prevented from seeing chaplains, working and accessing programs to learn vocational skills or earn a general education diploma.
Nick Ou, 27, a gay man who served four months for possession of a stolen vehicle, said he applied repeatedly to a work program that would have cut his sentence in half but was denied. He also says he never saw a chaplain despite asking repeatedly.
"I shouldn't have to choose between my safety and my sexual orientation. That's pretty much the choice you have to make," he said. "They tell you, 'Go back to general population and get a job or stay here and deal with it.'"