LOS ANGELES –The ACLU of Southern California (ACLU/SC) and the National ACLU today released a report documenting disturbing conditions and abuses in the Los Angeles County jail system, including excessive and unjustified force by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, retaliation against prisoners for communicating with the ACLU/SC, a lack of access to mental health care, and severe overcrowding.

The report, based on scores of visits to the jails and interviews with dozens of prisoners during the first eight months of this year, paints a stark picture of unacceptable levels of violence in the jails, with deputies reported to have beaten handcuffed prisoners, injuring some so badly that they ended up in intensive care. The report also shows that retaliation against prisoners is an acute problem. Several prisoners have been severely punished for meeting with representatives of the ACLU, which is the court-appointed monitor of conditions inside L.A.’s county jails. This pattern of retaliation results in prisoners being afraid to speak freely with the ACLU about conditions in the jails.

“This report makes clear that deputy abuse and retaliation is not limited to a few isolated instances, but is instead a significant problem that has developed over decades and characterizes Men’s Central Jail and other jails run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff,” said Peter Eliasberg, Managing Attorney of the ACLU/SC. “What is even more troubling is that the ACLU has been reporting these problems for a number of years, but they continue to fester or get worse.”

One prisoner reported being attacked by a group of deputies on his way back from church because he failed to put his hands in his pockets, though his jail-issued clothing had none. Deputies beat him so badly they left him with several broken ribs, a fractured nose and a swollen artery in his brain. Another prisoner told ACLU jail monitors that a sheriff’s deputy punched him in the face for having his shirt untucked and asking for a new pair of shoes.

“There is a strong link between the massive over-incarceration in the L.A. County Jails and the terrifying subculture of deputy violence and abuse at Men’s Central,” said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “The cure will require finding safe alternatives to locking up low-risk detainees who are awaiting trial."

The report follows a series of troubling outside reports of serious misconduct at the jail. Most recently, a former jailhouse deputy was sentenced to four years in prison for attempting to smuggle drugs inside the jail. And just a month ago, the Office of Independent Review for the County of Los Angeles issued a report(pdf) uncovering a deliberate and systematic cover-up involving at least 10 deputies who falsified
surveillance logs in part to hide the fact that John Horton, a twenty year inmate who was exhibiting signs of severe mental illness, hung himself in his cell while the supervising deputies were at the jail’s gym working out or at a nearby restaurant making a “chow run.”

Taken together with the ACLU report, these incidents paint a picture of a jail with lax deputy supervision and little accountability that gives rise to negligence, abuse and violence. Today’s report was prompted, in part, by the overwhelming response of former and current prisoners to the ACLU’s May 2010 report on conditions inside Men’s Central Jail. The May report, which covered 2009, provided a broad overview of the overcrowded conditions, woefully inadequate care of those with mental disabilities and deputy-on-inmate retaliation and violence. Today’s report provides an update on those conditions.