LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Alarmed at the prospect of further overcrowding and violence in Los Angeles County’s jails, the American Civil Liberties Union today asked a judge to prevent the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department from closing a 1,600-bed jail facility without first preparing a detailed plan to cope with the potential for a serious worsening of conditions in other jails.
In documents filed in federal court, the ACLU further demanded that Sheriff Lee Baca consider closing the dilapidated Men’s Central Jail instead of the more modern North Facility at Pitchess Detention Center, which Baca has said he will shutter on September 1, 2009.
“Closing the North Facility without a careful plan will have a grave impact on inmates already forced to endure substandard conditions,” said Melinda Bird, senior counsel for the ACLU of Southern California. “As it is now, the Sheriff’s Department is violating the Constitution by holding thousands of mentally ill inmates in windowless cells in Men’s Central Jail, without access to medical and mental health treatment, and literally driving them mad. We cannot afford to make this bad situation even worse.”
The Sheriff Department’s failure to adequately plan for closures in the past has led to deadly rioting and caused severe back-ups at the inmate reception center. After bed reductions in 2006 and 2007, the ACLU found that pre-trial detainees were being packed into holding cells for days or even weeks at a time, where they were forced to sleep on the floor, often without food or access to telephones.
The ACLU’s request for a preliminary injunction asks a federal judge to require the Sheriff’s Department to prepare a report on the closure’s impact on conditions in the county’s remaining jail facilities, and include criteria used to release or transfer individuals held in the North Facility. The ACLU also seeks a follow-up, weekly count of inmates in jail cells.
“The county must have a strong closure plan in place, one that diverts overcrowding and ensures peace, not one that could exacerbate conditions in Men’s Central Jail -- the decaying and most overcrowded portion of the jail system,” Bird said.
A series of declarations filed with the court today paint a bleak picture of the Men’s Central Jail, one where detainees are left for a week without a change of clothes, are forced to bathe in moldy dirty showers and infrequently see daylight. The detainees report a cockroach-infested facility so filthy that one detainee had a rodent literally fall onto his face. As many as 120 detainees are crammed into a single dorm room at a time, and some wait days on end for medical attention. In these abysmal conditions, one detainee details in the court filings how he sank into a depressive state, while another tells of how he complained of pain for days but was ignored by medical staff. He was finally taken to the hospital after blood appeared in his colostomy bag.
Baca himself called for Men’s Central Jail to be closed last February, saying that the jail has “outlived its time.” Nevertheless, blaming budget cutbacks, he now has chosen to close the North Facility, which is more modern.
“Because Los Angeles County has to be serious about saving money, given the current economy, the Board of Supervisors should commit to developing alternatives to detention that reduce jail populations and treat many detainees more effectively without any increased risk to public safety,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project.
A comprehensive pre-trial release program that makes use of electronic monitoring, supported housing, and drug and mental-health treatment programs could be adopted at a fraction of the cost of jail. And because countless studies have shown that these programs reduce recidivism and the risk of new offenses, they do far more to protect public safety than a brutalizing jail stay.
The filing is part of Rutherford v. Baca, the ACLU’s decades-long litigation challenging the conditions at the Los Angeles County Jail – the nation's largest correctional facility.