Dangerous Jails LASD

The Cost of Dangerous Jails: Two More High Ticket Payouts for LA County Jail Deaths

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

TWO DEATHS, TWO HIGH $$ PAYOUTS

Despite the work toward reform in the Los Angeles County Jails in the last few years, the problems that were allowed to bloom largely unchecked inside the nation’s largest jail system continue to take millions of dollars out of the pockets of LA County’s taxpayers in the form of legal settlements.

On Wednesday of this week, the day after voting day, the board of supervisors agreed to pay a grand total of $3,250,000 in settlements to the families of two inmates who died in the jails.

In addition to the $3.25 million on the two cases, the county paid $928,564 in attorneys fees and expenses on the cases that dragged on for a year and a half, in once case, and two-and-a-half years in the other.

One of the deaths occurred after many of the reforms were supposedly in place, at least in part.


SUICIDE OR NOT?

The most recent of the cases was filed in April 2015 by Arean Edwards, the mother of 24-year-old Earl Lee Johnson, who alleged that, on September 27 2014, sheriff’s deputies at Twin Towers jail beat her son in the head so badly that he became unconscious. Then, according to the lawsuit, the deputies covered-up the alleged assault by hanging the young man from a bedsheet in his cell to make his injuries appear be suicide.

Johnson did not die right away but lingered in the hospital for three weeks before succumbing to this injuries.

James Orland, the attorney for Johnson’s mother, told an AP reporter in April 2015 that the LA coroner’s office Johnson killed himself by hanging.

Orland said that the family got its own autopsy, which concluded Johnson died from a “fractured skull” caused by “blunt-force trauma.”

County counsel recommended settling.


DEATH INSTEAD OF FIRE CAMP

The second case was brought by Helen Jones, the mother of a 22-year-old man named John Horton who, on March 30, 2009, was found hanging from a noose in his cell in Men’s Central Jail.

WitnessLA wrote about the case in a two-part series back in 2009, and learned that, when Horton died, he had been in jail for over a month on a drug possession charge and was waiting to be shipped off to fire camp where he was to serve two years. As a nonviolent, low-level offender without a pile of priors Horton was eligible the program that allows inmates to learn elements of wildland firefighting. According to his mother, he welcomed the idea of fire camp.

Yet, for reasons that no one could adequately explain, for nearly entire duration of Horton’s time in CJ, Horton had been kept in insolation in a a dimly lit, windowless, solid-front cell the size of a closet.

The cell was around 5 X 7 feet, said Margaret Winter, the head of the ACLU’s national prison project, when we talked back in 2009 about Horton’s case.

Winter, who has seen many cells in her professional life, said that Horton’s cell was so dimly lit that reading would have been difficult or impossible. “And there was nothing else in the cell. It was a room with no desk, no chair.”

Only a cot, sink and toilet and a cement floor. This meant that Horton was left in the room for hours and hours on end, seeing no one, talking to no one, reading nothing, receiving none of the prison programs. Glimpsing no sunlight. For hours, and days, that turned into weeks.

Horton’s mother, Helen Jones, told me that, initially, she thought it was a good thing that her son was in jail. She was optimistic that the arrest would be the wake up call he needed to get him off of drugs and back on a positive path.

Horton was originally arrested for drug possession in 2007, Jones explained. At that time, she said, he accepted a plea agreement and was ordered by the judge to go to a drug rehab. Horton agreed eagerly, according to his mother. But on the day he was supposed to report to the rehab facility, he never showed up. As a consequence a bench warrant was issued in his name.

Fast forward to late February of 2009. Jones was worried about her son. She didn’t see him use drugs but she knew something was amiss, “He was a good boy. But he was messed up, she said. He loved kids. He was talented boxer. But he was having problems, she said, and she was at a loss to know what to do about it.

Finally one night Jones found John overdosed. She was fairly sure he had taken a bunch of pills. Terrified, she drove him to the emergency room of St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood.

At the hospital, the existence of the arrest warrant was discovered. Once Horton was determined to be out of immediate danger, he was taken to Men’s Central Jail.


STUCK IN SOLITARY

Helen Jones went to visit him a day later and he still seemed very groggy. I’m alright, he told her. I’m reading the Bible. It’s okay.

Jones wasn’t sure. So she made a point of going to the jail again a couple of days later. This time she was told her son could have no visitors. Nor could he make phone calls. “He’s in protective custody,” the deputy said. No one seemed to be able to explain what exactly this meant.

Jones said she tried again a few days later still. Again, she was told that Horton could have no visitors. Worried, she asked to see the watch commander, whom she said was uninformative. “My son needs to know I’m here for him,” she said she told the officer. “He needs my support.”

Helen Jones next saw her son on March 16 when he went to court to face the consequences of his AWOL from rehab.

According to Jones, the judge seemed to see that John was no hard core criminal but a young man in need of help. In any case, it was this judge who agreed to sentence Horton to the two years in fire camp, where he would learn a trade and get back in good physical condition. Jones was overjoyed at the fire camp sentence.

“When I talked to him, he was relieved too,” she told me in 2009. There would be no more running. No more drugs. “He was already planning what he would do in two years when he was released. He wanted to come out and go back to boxing. That was his plan.”

Jones said she actually thanked the judge.

Yet, during the hearing she became concerned about her son’s mental condition. He was behaving strangely.

“He wasn’t all the way right,” she said. The judge who, according to Jones, recognized that Horton was in some kind of state of mental distress, told her that John would be in the medical unit of the jail for at least the beginning of the two or three weeks it would take to arrange the transfer to fire camp. He told her that she shouldn’t worry.


STILL NO VISITORS

A few days later, Jones again went to visit her son, but was once more told he could have no visitors, and could not make phone calls. “He’s supposed to be in the medical unit,” she told the jail staff. No, he was in “protective custody,” they said. Again there was no explanation.

Jones continued to go back to the jail during visiting hours to try to see her son, but was never able to see him.

The last day Jones tried to visit her son at Men’s Central Jail, it was on a weekend. This time she was told he was in “disciplinary custody.” Frightened and furious, she asked how he could go from isolation in protective custody to isolation in disciplinary custody, when a judge had supposedly slated him for the medical unit. Had John done something wrong? The staff said they could give her no information.

Jones again asked to see the watch commander. She was told that seeing a watch commander was not possible. By this time, Helen had been trying to visit her son for a month and had been repeatedly put off. She was not about to be put off again. She worked her way up the command structure until finally the watch commander did come out to talk to her.

He was very polite, Jones told me. Kind even.

Since it was the weekend, he said, if she would come back the following Wednesday, he would get to the bottom of things and have an answer for her then.

Wednesday turned out to be too late. “By Monday he was gone,” she said.

John Horton hanged himself on Monday, March 30.


WAS ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION?

By the time deputies found Horton he had been dead so long that rigor mortis had set in. “How long was he in there? He’s very stiff!” the prison paramedic reportedly remarked to the officers, according to the ACLU’s Winter.

The man in the cell next to Horton reportedly began taking frantic notes immediately after the young man’s death, just to make sure that someone had a record of what had happened. WitnessLA obtained a copy of the inmate’s notes. (See image above.)

In the days before his suicide, wrote the inmate/witness, Horton showed many signs that he was a man in serious trouble. For one thing, he had tied a noose tied to the back of his light fixture in his cell and hanging in plain sight.

“I seen it. They seen it. Mr. Horton visibly stood in his cell and/or squatting atop his sink with plastic ties around his wrist and looking directly at the noose (several deputies observed these “items” and ‘behavior’ when taking me or bringing me back they brought me back from the law-library)…”

Horton stopped eating, refused his meds, began talking to himself, yet according to the witness, he told staff that Horton needed help. But he observed no help or intervention given.

At the time, we talked to a second inmate who, while farther away, told a similar story of Horton being in distress, and no one reportedly paying attention until it was much too late.


MORE READING

Frank Stoltze at KPCC has a report that looks at the changes being made inside the jails now, which includes training as to how to better deal with mentally ill inmates.

And the Office of Inspector General Max Huntsman has issued a new report that looks at progress in reform efforts in the LASD in general, and specifically in the jails. You can find that report here.

14 Comments

  • Yet another large payout from the pockets of the LA Co taxpayer. I’m sure the individual at Twin Towers was mentally ill and should not have been in a jail in the first place. The other individual at Men’s Central Jail was in solitary…usually folks don’t go there for good behavior. Once one problem is addressed and fixed, another one will always be waiting to be discovered. Prisons and jails are the last options for dealing with folks who “can’t play nice” in our society. It’s always going to be an imperfect place charged to deal with the bad actors, predators, bullies, malcontents, sociopaths, manipulators and “law breakers” in our society. LA Co taxpayers just be prepared to keep writing those checks since it is all but impossible to expect perfection from a place that deals with the flawed, “imperfect” members of our great society.

  • Unfortunately 95% of the taxpayers in Los Angeles County are asleep on this. Since “the hit” comes the entire County and not as a individual, the sting is barely felt. The majority of deputies who work custody are decent, but there is always a contingent of Asshole Deputies. The convictions of deputies as of late confirm that fact. Why would a hanging inmate has rigor mortis? Common sense tells you that deputies were not making cell checks. That’s another story in itself.

  • I agree that the majority of deputies in LA Co jails and folks in law enforcement are hardworking and decent human beings. However, LASD and law enforcement suffers from the most pervasive form of occupational prejudice that ever existed. If we held all members of other professions responsible for the actions of a few this would be ridiculed and not tolerated. Doctors are guilty of malpractice, lawyers are guilty of not providing adequate representation, judges make decisions that are appealed, etc, etc However, all members of these proffesion are never vilified and made out to be the devil incarnate. The jails will always be a place others can find fault and it’s employees will always be the proverbial boogeymen out to impose their I’ll will.

  • Charles Martel,

    Big Red, as she is known to us, can hardly be held accountable for something that happened 4 years before her arrival. She’s responsible for a lot of other problems that will haunt us for a long time, but this guy hanging himself isn’t one of them.

    Conspiracy,

    People who break the law and are anything but violently insane belong in jail. That’s just the way it works. There’s no budget, and certainly no will, to warehouse regular crazy folks in state mental hospitals. That ship has sailed.

    If Mr. Horton was housed at Towers for a mental condition, there’s no way he was slated to go to fire camp. I know that appears to be a minor point, but it’s a red flag to me.

    Also, while we’re boohooing about the loss of a petty criminal (at least that’s the way he’s being portrayed) then we need to put his suicide in perspective: Current statistics show 20 returning veterans kill themselves every day – 20 EVERY DAY. I think our average has been 2 or 3 per year in our jails with an average 18 – 19 thousand housed on any given day. The stats for civilian population vary too widely to quote.

    Other than the inevitable civil judgment for the loss of the dearly departed inmate – who was just turning his life around and was going to become a brain surgeon – I put a considerably lower value on an inmate who decides to off himself than I do on the average citizen or a veteran.

    I suggest that the ACLU and other liberals quit worrying about those who prey upon society and start worrying about those who protect it.

  • The box is still wrapped by a stamped acronym in purple ink, like a rubber sheeted picture blending the art of perspectives hiddening the projection. So much-needed review to stop the avalanche, but evryone sold out, and the lack of representation for minorities, not defined by race, uniquely subdivided by the complex shade of Los Angeles County box car insurance joke and the dark shadows of international unionized crossemployed or deployed tasks congregating on Thursday nights, celebrating the games while they roast the new lamb chop, and play facebook tinderbox Middleton, wearing their new blue beta blockers and eating mc donalds apple pie. Passing around the apple before another training event, drains the wallet and breaks another piece off the Keychain, totally playing hangman with numerology and horoscopes, viewing the fuzzy compliance options, the empowering horizons, and the new eyebrow trendsetters. The extentions used to criss-cross and reroute the rat race to find Cinderella’s glass shoe, that shattered. The elevator video game shows Dr Brown reading a green bible, Exodus and sega Genesis subway surfing like blue smurfs running from a giant Chihuahua because the curiosity killed 2 cats, and it rained cats and dogs, not to mention birds and rats for roadkill holiday barbecue and kangaroo style boxing matches to protect joeys that I can’t hide. The background jazz music and extra dance to worship the Golden rain fund, or Good Year mile high club, should have a synchronized parachute show, and the Pokémon hero, or the trainer could be crowned royalty and wear a feather in his hat.

  • after all the reporting and documentation about the suicide of john horton and following the civil damage settlement by l.a. county
    which confirms the extremely negligent treatment afforded horton while in custody at MCJ –
    there remains the big question without slightest hint of answer,
    why was HORTON’S mother unsuccessful at any of her attempts to visit him at MCJ?
    during the period in question, mcj administered a custody visitation process handling hundreds of civilians arriving daily for face to face communication with their friend/family member held in custody.
    as long as the visitor arrived before the cut-off time and presented proper identification and remained patient, a sincere effort was made to locate and transport the custody to the visitation booth.
    even a person held in a ‘protective’ status is accommodated visitation with family members.
    the only plausible explanation that comes to mind is that horton exercised his right to not participate in the visitation process each and every time his mother presented a request that her son be escorted to the visitation booth
    and that mcj custody officers followed a policy of misrepresenting the rejection of the visitor by the person held in custody.

  • Not to mention that a bar code system (to monitor the visual cell checks) was implemented,then manipulated by several deputies who scanned copies of the bar codes and made multiple copies. The deputies then sat on their asses at their desk as they scanned the copy at designated times, which falsely indicated a visual check. The exposed dirty laundry and scandalous acts, continue to smear shit on the already tarnished reputation of the Los Angeles County Jail System.

  • @allisonbee I doubt he was refusing to see his mother, come on give me a break! The guards didn’t want his mother to see him. He may have told her of the abuse or she maybe would have seen visually for herself. Prisoners are being treated inhuman everywhere. Granted they are in prison for a reason but that doesn’t give the guards the right to beat or mentally abuse that person. LASD, ALADS and the County better start saving their pennies because they are going to need them.

  • Allisonbee Tokalas,

    There are extremely few inmates who are cut off from contact with the outside, aside from inmates on discipline status for periods of time (usually under 30 days).

    Other than these few exceptions by court order (and Horton would not have been one of those) there are some reasons for failed visits: women who intentionally set up visits to block other females from visiting (and mom could easily have been caught up in that as an unintended consequence); inmates who refuse to come out for a visit, as sometimes they’re mad at their own attorney or a family member; visitors who lie and pretend they tried to visit the inmate (oh, baby, the mean old deputies kicked me out); the visitor violates visitation rules and actually does get kicked out or even arrested for contraband (usually drugs); and just general SNAFUs (went to the wrong jail, missed the visiting hours, etc.).

    Not to make excuses for lazy deputies who made copies of the bar codes, but do you have any idea what jail deputies are being ordered to do? They have to walk into the lions’ den and mix among the inmates hourly or more to ensure they’re ok. These walks are being exploited by the inmates to attack deputies more and more, not that anybody gives a damn about deputies.

  • @ 10. GitH. Granted there were exceptions, however it appears you’re making excuses for a Archaic Jail System that ran rampant with inhumane past practices. Save the bullshit for someone who has never worked custody. I do agree that deputies are paying thr price for what a few idiot deputies (from the past) did. I’m Pro Deputy, but I detest every moron who wore a star on their chest, who made it bad/worse for all deputies who follow afterwards. No pass,here.

  • More Facts,

    I’m unclear what “bullshit” you’re referring to. You’re also giving me mixed messages about your own experience: you want us to believe you worked custody and then indicate you’re “pro deputy.” That’s an odd thing for a deputy (or whatever rank you may have attained) to say.

    And if you’re really on the job, work some OT in a jail – there’s a ton of it these days. The conditions will shock you, especially the lack of control the department (read outside liberal influence) wants us to exert.

  • Good in the Hood:

    Your “Big Red” came in saying she was going to reform the system, prevent federal receivership, and improve the custodial environment. How’d that work out? Instead she left smoldering ruins and the chaos that mismanagement brings. I believe the inmates now run that asylum.

    Like Cheaty Pete at USC, when she knew the jig was up and after failing miserably, she left for “family reasons.” Something about travelling to Sacramento being such a burden for her and her loved ones. And now she’s again in Los Angeles and will destroy another system, much like she did CDCR and LASD. So much for her family.

    She is the epitome of hypocrisy. The current system is hers to own. Your dog won’t hunt.

  • Who ever wrote this article of the murder of John Horton needs to be ashamed of themselves for not posting real facts about his death. John Horton was murdered, beaten to death in his cell by three sheriff deputies. The case is Scanner Gate google it and check your facts. Why do you think they paying the mother. Remember forensic files you can tell all the lies you want to but you can always prove murder. Remember god is watching all of y’all even me. One day real soon the whole world is going to know the truth and the facts about John Horton’s murder. And this is to the writer of this article Thank You for bringing these to mothers together ITS ON. GOD BLESS YOU ALL.

Leave a Comment