Inmate found dead in Orange County cell; death is latest incident to roil jail system
Two of Danny Pham’s older sisters carry his photo at a procession during his funeral Friday. The Orange County district attorney’s office is investigating Pham’s death in a jail cell July 3. (Michael Guisti)
The Orange County district attorney’s office is investigating the jailhouse death of a 27-year-old man convicted of car theft who was sharing a cell with a man charged with two murders.
In the latest incident to roil the county’s jail system, Danny Pham was found dead in his cell July 3, a few days shy of completing his 180-day sentence.
Pham’s attorney Michael Guisti said in an interview Saturday that Marvin Magallanes, an Anaheim man accused of killing two homeless men, was placed in Pham’s cell. Guisti said reliable sources told him that Magallanes had killed Pham.
Efforts to reach the district attorney Saturday were unsuccessful.
“These cells should be checked on periodically and they hadn’t checked on him in probably more than an hour,” Guisti said. “Obviously someone doesn’t die at the hands of another when you’re supposedly being watched over.”
Magallanes has not been charged in the jailhouse death. Guisti did not know how Pham died.
An administrative investigation was launched and five sheriff’s department employees were placed on paid leave following the inmate’s death, said Lt. Lane Lagaret, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Lagaret said he could not confirm whether the five employees are deputies. He emphasized that the department’s investigation into the employees is administrative and is not part of the district attorney’s probe of the inmate’s death.
The district attorney’s investigation into Pham’s death was first reported Friday by the Orange County Register.
When Pham’s family spoke to him shortly before his death, Guisti said, he appeared in good spirits as he prepared to be released. He said Pham had been in cosmetology school before entering jail.
Guisti said he will file a lawsuit Monday against the sheriff’s department on behalf of Pham’s family.
The jails are patrolled by deputies as well as non-sworn correctional services assistants. Lagaret would not answer questions about Pham’s housing assignment, citing the ongoing investigation.
“I think the deputies do an outstanding job on a day-to-day basis classifying inmates, and we house them where they are as safe as possible,” Lagaret said.
There are cameras within the Orange County jails, Lagaret said, but he could not confirm whether any devices would have been recording in the area of Pham’s cell.
“That’s part of the investigation,” he said.
Pham’s death came about a week after the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California issued a 104-page report alleging inhumane and unsafe conditions in the Orange County jail system. In conjunction with the report, the ACLU called on Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to resign.
The ACLU — which spent two years examining complaints and conducting interviews inside the jails — reported that deputies instigated fights, were verbally abusive, used excessive force, and failed to adequately address the medical needs of inmates.
In particular, the report noted that inmate-on-inmate assaults rose 47% from 2010 to 2014 and that the attacks were sometimes tied to guards inciting violence or failing to intervene in fights. Guards also failed to conduct consistent “floor checks” to supervise inmates, the report alleged.
The ACLU also claimed that too many people suffering from mental health issues were being housed with the general population, as opposed to being assigned to mental health beds.
Court records show Magallanes had a pending mental competency hearing Aug. 15 in a death penalty cases involving the separate slayings of homeless men on Oct. 27 and Jan. 25.
“How long did it take for deputies to intervene while Pham was being killed? Usually if there is a fight going on in the jails, it gets fairly loud in there,” said Esther Lim, director of the ACLU of Southern California’s Jails Project and an author of the report.
“Obviously an error occurred, and the error happened on the part of the Sheriff’s Department,” she said.
Hutchens, just after the ACLU report came out, disputed some of its findings, saying that inmates are given adequate medical and mental health care. She also criticized the ACLU for not contacting her department for what she says would have been correct information to include in the report.
Within hours after the report’s release, Hutchens announced she would not seek reelection and would retire at the end of her term next year, but she insisted the decision had nothing to do with the ACLU’s findings or calls for her to step down.
Lim said unfortunate events like Pham’s death are an indicator that the Sheriff’s Department needs independent civilian oversight.
The Orange County Office of Independent Review has been vacant since March 2016, when its director resigned after criticism from county supervisors that the oversight group hadn’t done enough to expose a jailhouse informant controversy.
The office had been created in 2008 in response to outrage over the killing of John Chamberlain, an inmate beaten to death in 2006 by other inmates at the Theo Lacy jail, which is supervised by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
A grand jury found that Chamberlain was beaten and sodomized by fellow inmates for about 50 minutes while deputies in charge of supervision were napping, watching television or sending text messages.