LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The American Civil Liberties Union today released an expert’s report documenting how brutally overcrowded conditions cause or contribute to violence and serious mental illness in the county’s aging Men’s Central Jail, and demanded that Los Angeles County swiftly implement changes to prevent unnecessary deaths or serious injuries.
The release of the report comes as the county investigates the death of John Horton, 22, who was found hanging from a noose in his cell on March 30 after spending more than a month in Men’s Central Jail following his arrest on a drug possession charge. The ACLU also released a letter from a witness detailing the events leading up to the death of Horton, who was held in solitary confinement in a dimly lit, windowless, solid-front cell the size of a closet. His body was already stiff by the time security staff discovered it.
“Men’s Central Jail is so grossly overcrowded, dangerous and dungeon-like that it puts intolerable stress on the jailed as well as the jailers,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “The county must do whatever it takes to stop subjecting people to the nightmarish conditions in this jail, and stop denying basic mental health treatment to those who need it.”
The problems and urgently needed reforms are spelled out in a 50-page report by Dr. Terry Kupers, a national expert on correctional medical health care, detailing intolerable conditions inside Men’s Central Jail. The report, commissioned by the ACLU and submitted to Sheriff Lee Baca last year, was released publicly today after months of negotiations with the sheriff’s department failed to yield any substantive commitment to address Dr. Kupers’ findings.
Among other things, Dr. Kupers found that idleness and massive overcrowding at the jail leads to violence, victimization, custodial abuse and ultimately psychotic breakdown even in relatively healthy people, as well as potentially irreversible psychosis in detainees with pre-existing illness.
Dr. Kupers also reported that mental health staff at the jail routinely fail to diagnose prisoners with serious mental illness, and downgrade the diagnoses of many who have long-established and well-documented maladies. These practices conceal the massive numbers of seriously mentally ill detainees, while also resulting in the transfer of many to the general jail population where they are victimized, or to solitary confinement, where their condition dramatically deteriorates.
With 20,000 detainees, the Los Angeles County jail system is the largest in the nation. Men’s Central Jail is nearly 50 years old and currently houses an average of 5,000 detainees. Most are awaiting trial and have not been convicted, and Dr. Kupers estimated that nearly half of them suffer from mental illness.
The county spends more than $140 per night – a total of more than $50,000 per year – to house each detainee with mental illness. And many low-risk detainees remain in jail for months simply because they are too poor to make bail. Adopting a comprehensive pre-trial release program for these detainees that makes use of electronic monitoring or other close supervision would reduce the extreme overcrowding in the county’s jails and free up millions of dollars for increased mental-health services without any risk to public safety.
“We call on the county to review the toxic conditions, abuse and overcrowding documented in Dr. Kupers’ report, and that contributed to the tragic death of John Horton,” said Melinda Bird, senior counsel for the ACLU of Southern California. “The county spends $1 billion per year on its jails. Some of these funds must be diverted to new, more cost-effective programs that will reduce recidivism and end the criminalization of mental illness — a cycle of incarceration that ensnares thousands of detainees with mental disabilities every year.”