LOS ANGELES, Calif. – A report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union shows that overcrowding and unsanitary conditions that have plagued the jail for more than 30 years still persist, along with an apparent culture of violence and fear, including prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and the use of excessive force by deputies.
The picture of the jail that emerges in stark and disturbing detail in the report suggests that mentally disabled prisoners suffer some of the worst treatment, and that retaliation and a lack of transparency in conducting investigations into prisoner complaints make it difficult to assess the true extent of violence that occurs there.
“Men’s Central Jail is a modern-day medieval dungeon, a dank, windowless place where prisoners live in fear of retaliation and abuse apparently goes unchecked. The jail is not an appropriate facility for housing prisoners with mental illness, many of whom do not receive proper treatment for their mental illness,” said Peter Eliasberg, ACLU/SC managing attorney. “At the root of the many problems plaguing this toxic facility is overcrowding and the only solutions are to either reduce the jail population dramatically or close it.”
With approximately 20,000 detainees, the Los Angeles County jail system is the largest and most expensive in the nation, costing nearly $1 billion a year to operate. Men’s Central Jail is nearly 50 years old and currently houses an average of 5,000 detainees. More than half are simply awaiting trial – in other words, they are presumed innocent and have yet to get their day in court.
The ACLU/SC and the ACLU National Prison Project are the court-appointed monitors of conditions within the jail.
The new report, based on the observations of ACLU jail monitors, numerous interviews with prisoners, and thousands of prisoner complaints gathered between 2008 and 2009, focuses on conditions inside Men’s Central Jail, the largest jail in the county’s system.
In one case detailed in the report, a prisoner said he was brutally beaten by deputies after complaining to an ACLU jail monitor that he and other prisoners on his jail row had not been allowed to shower for weeks. The deputies broke his leg, and hurt his knee so badly that he had to have surgery. The ferocious attack had a chilling effect, silencing many of the prisoners on that row. When a jail monitor visited a few days after the beating, many refused to talk, while those who did spoke in hushed tones, fearing they would also be targeted.
Another significant concern is that a high percentage of prisoners are mentally ill, many unable to control their disturbed behavior. A national expert found abuse of prisoners by deputies and other prisoners is disproportionately directed toward those with mental illness.
“The dangerously overcrowded conditions at Men’s Central Jail exacerbate the violence, filth and mental illness, creating a poisonous brew,” said Mary Tiedeman, ACLU/SC Jails Project coordinator and co-author of the report. “No human being should be forced to live in such egregious conditions. But what is so troubling is that most of these prisoners are awaiting trial, still presumed innocent.”
It is difficult for the ACLU to assess accurately the extent of violence inside the jails or confirm allegations. The Sheriff’s Department refuses to release basic information about how it conducts investigations of abuse and metes out punishment. This lack of transparency raises serious questions about the adequacy and independence of the department’s internal review process and could even encourage violence within the facility. The ACLU is further hampered by a widespread fear of retaliation among prisoners, portrayed in numerous prisoner complaints.
“It’s time for the county and the Sheriff’s Department to deal with the longstanding problems at the heart of this lawsuit, and spending more money on a newer and bigger jail is not the answer,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “It’s time for them to lower the jail population by using proven diversion programs such as electronic monitoring and drug and mental health treatment. The conditions at Men’s Central Jail are simply among the most barbaric of any jail or prison in the nation.”
Top photo: ACLU/SC Managing Attorney Peter Eliasberg, and Jails Project Coordinator Mary Tiedeman.
Bottom photo: Inside the Men's Central Jail.