For nearly two decades, the Los Angeles County jails were virtually the nation’s poster jails for everything that could go wrong with and inside county jails.
The allegations of prisoner beatings, suspicious suicides, torture, abusive searches and seizure of property, overcrowding and even the starvation of inmates, in the county jails were the subject of countless probes and investigative articles.
As horrific as the allegations were, the even more tormenting problem was the treatment of mentally challenged inmates. The estimate was that one in five inmates in the jails suffers mental and emotional illnesses.
The jail, by default, had become the largest county facility for handling and housing the mentally ill. This is where things went wrong, terribly wrong.
The mentally ill inmates were routinely harassed, abused and neglected. Facilities and trained mental health professionals to provide treatment and care to these inmates were virtually non-existent.
Meanwhile, the county Board of Supervisors pretty much accepted sheriff’s officials’ assurances that the abuses either didn’t exist or where there were problems were being fixed. Things came to a head when the feds stepped in and issued report after report confirming the worst of the worst of conditions at the jails.
Dozens of sheriff’s deputies and sheriff’s officials were fingered for either encouraging or turning a blind eye to the horrific conditions. Eventually, more than a dozen former members of the sheriff’s department, including deputies, were convicted on charges of civil rights violations.
Former sheriff’s Capt. William Carey and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka were also arrested. They are currently awaiting trial. Despite the long and sordid history of jail house abuse, it still took much pressure from prison reform advocates, the American Civil Liberties Union, class-action lawsuits, the courts, and the Justice Department for Sheriff’s Department officials to finally buckle and agree to implement sweeping reforms, all under federal court oversight and monitoring.
But even that hasn’t removed the ugly glare from the jails. Now there’s the report that in their hunt for contraband and other illicit possessions at one of the jail facilities, guards routinely chained inmates to walls in bathrooms while they conducted strip searches or forced them to expel objects from their bodies. This took hours and an untold number of inmates suffered serious injuries including internal bleeding and bruised and battered ankles and wrists.
Just how long this practice had gone on, and who ordered that this torture be used, is still undetermined. However, the fact is that it was not an isolated practice and that it went on long enough to be regarded as standard operating procedure in the guards’ method of tracking down contraband.
The procedure was spelled out in writing as a required method of dealing with contraband searches. Sheriff’s Department officials say that they’ve ended the practice and that inmates will not be chained to walls while searched.
Federal oversight will ensure that when an abuse goes public, jail officials will act.
Yet there’s a bigger problem that even the most aggressive federal monitoring can’t correct with the L.A. County jails, and indeed other county jails nationally. The brutal reality is that there are still far too many persons being jailed for far too long often for drug and other petty crimes and they have mental challenges.
This ensures continued and massive overcrowding and that almost invites the types of abuses that repeatedly crop up in local jails. The stats tell the grim tale of mass over incarceration.
Last year, the overall state prison population nationally took a slight dip from its peak of 1.4 million in 2009. Yet, cities and counties incarcerated three timesas many people in local jails as they did in 1980.
The bulging numbers in county jails have long been evident in the L.A. County jails, which year in and year out house more inmates than any other jail system in the nation. That number will go higher with changes in California law forced by prison overcrowding that now mandate more prisoners be held in county jails.
The Obama administration has pressed hard for implementing initiatives to reduce the jail and prison population. However, the reforms are mostly at the federal level and are largely centered on reducing the number of those jailed for petty drug crimes.
For now, this will have almost no impact on the number of offenders in local jails. But it’s a start.
Nearly two dozen states have taken some steps toward reform by increased funding for treatment, drug diversion and probation options to jailing.
There is much talk by the supervisors about spending a couple of billion dollars to build a new jail complete with a treatment center for the legions of mentally ill inmates and ramping up treatment diversion programs for those inmates. So far it’s just talk.
These are common sense, long overdue proposals, among others, though, that should be implemented if the L.A. County jails are ever to get out from under the ugly glare of abuse.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “Trump and the GOP: Race Baiting to the White House” (Amazon Kindle). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He also is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.