Jails in Crisis



U.S. Judge Calls for L.A. Jail Reforms
The jurist expresses dismay at crowded cells in the county's main downtown facility.
By Stuart Pfeifer
Times Staff Writer

May 12, 2006

Declaring that Los Angeles County officials have been housing inmates in ways "not consistent with basic human values," a federal judge Thursday called for speedy reforms at the cramped and crowded Men's Central Jail. 

One day after touring the downtown Los Angeles facility, U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson said he was appalled to find six inmates crammed into cells intended to house only three and kept there for days at a time with no opportunity to exercise or even stretch their legs.

"There is not enough room for all six inmates to stand up or take a pace or two," Pregerson said. "There is not enough room to do push-ups or do anything but lay in their bunks and sleep. That is not a situation that I think should be permitted to exist in the future."

Pregerson, who is presiding over a long-standing federal suit over jail conditions, was asked by the American Civil Liberties Union to step in after a series of deadly riots earlier this year in several Los Angeles County jail facilities. He agreed Thursday to oversee a collaborative effort by the ACLU and Sheriff Lee Baca to make improvements. He directed both sides to report back in two weeks.

The judge's participation could give new impetus to efforts to improve the treatment of prisoners across what is the nation's largest jail system, holding an average of 18,000 inmates a day. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has suggested that the county place a bond measure on the November ballot to raise up to $500 million for jail improvements, but his board colleagues have as yet taken no action. Neither Yaroslavsky nor Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who serves as chairman of the board, returned calls seeking comment.

"We do appreciate the judge's comments and the judge's concern to tour the jail," Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore said Thursday. "It's not a revelation to us that Men's Central Jail is not the best possible environment in our jail system."

Baca has been struggling to deal with jail violence and a lack of staffing that has prompted him to release more than 150,000 inmates early since mid-2002, many of them after they had served less than a tenth of their original sentences. Sheriff's officials have long said that the jail, which was built more than 40 years ago, was not intended to house the serious felons it does today. The best solution, but one county officials say they cannot afford, would be to tear down the jail and build a new one.

"We're really encouraged. This is a judge who now has first-hand knowledge of L.A.'s 'Dante's Inferno.' This is a facility that doesn't meet civilized standards," ACLU lawyer Mark Rosenbaum said. 

With nearly 6,000 inmates some of whom are only awaiting trial the Men's Central Jail is also one of the nation's most violent facilities. Since 2003, nine inmates have been killed in the jail. Last year, the Sheriff's Department ended a long-standing practice of forcing inmates to sleep on mattresses on the floor because of overcrowding. A class-action lawsuit seeking damages for that practice is pending.

Pregerson spent three hours touring the jail Wednesday and said he came away concerned about the amount of time inmates spend locked in their cells without daylight or recreation. Unlike many other jail facilities, Men's Central Jail has no day rooms where inmates can gather to watch television or socialize. 

Inmates are required by law to have about three hours of recreation time per week. At the Men's Central Jail, inmates often get those three hours in one day, so they spend as many as six consecutive days locked in their cells, where they leave only to attend court, visit the doctor or go to religious services.

"That is just simply not consistent with basic values," Pregerson said.

Baca is already taking steps that officials hope will improve jail conditions. Violent inmates are being moved out of Men's Central Jail and into the nearby and newer Twin Towers facility, a spokesman said Thursday. In recent weeks the department has moved about 200 inmates.

At the same time, the sheriff has had trouble filling guard jobs at the jails: The department is about 1,000 deputies short of its budgeted staffing level but is in the midst of a recruitment effort that should allow it to open more space at Twin Towers, Whitmore said.

Sheriff's Cmdr. Dennis Conte, who oversees the Men's Central Jail, said he was working on a proposal that would allow the department to open day rooms to address some of Pregerson's concerns.

"One of the comments Judge Pregerson made during his tour was about the absence of televisions or the opportunity for inmates to get out of cells. We took that to heart and want to do something about it," Conte said. 

The proposal would not allow the department to reduce the ratio of inmates per cell. The facility has about 200 three-man cells holding six inmates each, and 200 two-man cells each holding four. The rest of the inmates are housed in dormitories or in 1,000 one-man cells.

"Nobody is asking for a Beverly Hills spa," Rosenbaum said. "But sticking six individuals into a space designed for three and locking them down 24 hours a day is a danger to the inmates and to the staff." 


Editorial: A jail in crisis
Who, if anyone, is paying attention?

Published 2:15 am PST Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Things are out of control at the Sacramento County Jail. Are any of the people in charge paying attention?

A year after a lawsuit over illegal strip searches ended up costing the county as much as $15 million, another sickening lawsuit, this one alleging excessive use of force, is working its way through the system.

As reported Sunday by The Bee's Dorothy Korber and Christina Jewett, this case is about inmates who end up with split scalps and broken arms, injuries inflicted by the deputies. Once again, the Sheriff's Department is defending its behavior as appropriate. But the department's record isn't very encouraging. If the department is not planning to better police itself, somebody else will have to. And that somebody is the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.

While this new lawsuit has yet to result in a verdict or a settlement, it has revealed a disturbing lack of commitment by the department to routinely review very serious cases of inmate injuries caused by deputies. In the jail, for example, deputies broke the nose and arm of an inmate, Mihaita Constantin. And they split open the scalp of another inmate, Jafar Afshar, the one who has filed this lawsuit. Both inmates had to go to the hospital for emergency treatment. And then it was as if the incidents never happened.

If a deputy injures an inmate to the point that an emergency trip to the hospital is necessary, shouldn't that be enough to trigger an internal investigation? In those cases, it didn't.

Some rooms in the jail are equipped with video cameras. Images captured of Constantin and Afshar will make ugly exhibits in Afshar's upcoming lawsuit against the county. Among the videos is one of Sacramento college student Michael P. Hay, who found himself in jail on a charge of public drunkenness, even though deputies arrested him inside his apartment, where he had been drinking. Although the Hay video has no sound, deputies described a loud popping sound when his arm broke. After an estimated 10 hours in jail, Hay was released with charges dropped and without treatment.

Hay's injury triggered an internal investigation because the student filed a written complaint about his treatment in the jail. That investigation did not criticize the breaking of Hay's arm but did question why he received no medical treatment.

Clearly, the use of force in jail at times will be necessary to subdue belligerent inmates, but force that ends up hospitalizing an inmate is a serious incident. It deserves an automatic review.

While the sheriff is an elected official, so are the supervisors. They have the ultimate financial responsibility for rogue behavior by deputies. Supervisors provide the sheriff about a quarter-billion dollars annually to run the jail and the patrols. If the cracking of inmates' skulls and the breaking of arms are a financial threat to the county - not to mention just plain wrong and repulsive - the supervisors can't defer to Sheriff Lou Blanas. They need to ask some tough questions that the department apparently wants to avoid. This community is waiting for that inquiry to begin.


FBI opening probe of jail
More allegations follow suit claiming abuses against county inmates.
By Dorothy Korber and Christina Jewett -- Bee Staff Writers
Published 2:15 am PST Tuesday, November 1, 2005

The FBI is looking into complaints of excessive force at Sacramento County's Main Jail and asked the local NAACP branch Monday for documents relating to claims of abuse at the 2,500-inmate facility.

The FBI's interest comes in the wake of a story in Sunday's Bee about a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that excessive force is sanctioned and an ongoing practice by Sacramento County sheriff's deputies who guard the downtown jail.

Extensive reaction to the article on Monday included several additional claims of brutality at the hands of officers in the jail - including one that allegedly occurred early Saturday morning and left the arrested man with a broken nose.

Branden Johnson, 21, was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving just before 3 a.m. and spent 14 hours in the main jail before his release, jail documents show.

In an interview at his Sacramento home, Johnson said he was severely beaten by jail deputies who then left him alone in a cell, shackled and handcuffed, with his bloody face lying on a floor grate that had been used as a toilet.

A slender 6-footer, Johnson said he was repeatedly slammed to the floor while bound hand and foot.

"I started to yell," he said Monday evening. "I said: 'I was brought up right. My dad's a retired state peace officer.' Man, then they really started beating me."

Johnson displayed his injuries: a broken nose, walnut-sized lumps on his head, raw welts on his wrists and ankles, and a swollen hand and foot.

After Johnson's release Saturday evening, his father said he went to the jail to demand an explanation for his son's condition.

"I told them, 'I'm here to find out why you people beat the hell out of my son,'" said Dwayne Johnson, a retired state correctional officer. "I was told my son was abusive. They had this young man handcuffed and shackled, who did nothing but address them as 'sir.' "

Sheriff's Department spokesman R.L. Davis said he hadn't heard of the incident. "All events (in the jail) are on tape," Davis said Monday. If Branden Johnson files a complaint with the department, Davis added, internal affairs investigators may view the surveillance tapes.

"We have to wait and see what the video says," according to Davis.

The story in Sunday's Bee reported details of graphic video - from the jail's surveillance cameras - that was entered as evidence last week in a federal lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, plaintiff Jafar Afshar alleges that the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department has a pattern of allowing excessive force at the jail.

One of the video clips shows Afshar's June 7, 2003, booking on suspicion of public intoxication. The tape depicts Afshar lying in a pool of blood after deputies pulled him down during a pat-down search, causing his head to hit the jail floor.

Two other videos filed in the lawsuit show other men injured at the jail after being arrested for drunkenness. One, Mihaita Constantin, sustained a broken nose and hand during a struggle with five deputies in the drunk tank in July 2003. The other, college student Michael Hay, sustained a broken arm in December 2000 during a pat-down search.

In an interview Monday, Hay said he was surprised to find himself featured in the Afshar lawsuit since he settled his lawsuit three years ago, for $147,500. He used the money, he said, to buy a house in Natomas.

When arrested inside his apartment for public drunkenness, Hay said the deputy tried to humiliate him by calling him a homosexual slur after he flirted with a female deputy. Although his arm has healed, Hay said he has a lingering fear of police.

"I never resisted arrest, I followed their instructions to the letter, and they slammed my head against the wall and broke my arm," he said.

On Afshar's behalf, retired sheriff's Lt. Timothy Twomey wrote in an expert declaration to the court that each of the three cases shows a culture of using pain for punishment in the jail.

The Sheriff's Department denies the allegations of excessive force, but Undersheriff John McGinness said officials cannot comment on a pending lawsuit. When viewing the video with The Bee on Friday, the department's legal adviser, Lt. Scott Jones, said he noticed resistance by all three inmates.

Sacramento NAACP President Betty Williams, who had watched the video earlier, told The Bee that, "If what the deputies did inside the jail was done in street clothes outside, there would be felony charges."

On Monday, Williams called for the firing of deputies involved in the incidents.

Williams, who had contacted the FBI weeks ago about allegations of abuses in the jail - including poor medical care - heard Monday morning from an FBI official, who said an agent specializing in civil rights cases would meet with her and take a written statement of complaints.

FBI spokeswoman Karen Ernst said the bureau now intends to look into the matter.

"We'll investigate, and - like any other case - we'll see if there is enough evidence to go forward on the investigation and seek prosecution," Ernst said.

Asked for their response, Sacramento County supervisors had little to say.

"I haven't gotten around to the weekend papers," said Supervisor Susan Peters.

Supervisor Roger Dickinson also said he had not finished the article, nor had he viewed the video excerpts posted on The Bee's Web site. Dickinson said legal rulings leave the board little control over how the Sheriff's Department is run, since the sheriff is an elected official.

But he said the allegations of brutality do concern him, and he plans to look into the issue.

Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan said she would like more information about the alleged brutality, but added, "There's always more than one side of the story to these things that happen in custody and out in the field."

Neither Illa Collin nor Don Nottoli could be reached Monday.

Sacramento criminal defense attorney Kathryn Druliner e-mailed the newspaper to suggest that the Sacramento County jail is considered the worst in the state. Druliner said she routinely works with inmates who prefer to plead guilty, and move on to the state's prison system, rather than fight their charges and stay in the jail while awaiting trial.

In a follow-up interview, Druliner said: "There's a sadistic element that's in control."

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