A tale of dangerous jails & why WitnessLA needs your help before midnight tonight!

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

Almost every day we get calls from people locked up in the nation’s largest jail system.  

One of our most frequent callers is a man named Jason Underwood, who is incarcerated on a low level offense, which it isn’t entirely clear he committed.

His present guilt or innocence is an issue that we’ll discuss at another time.  Suffice it to say he’s someone who has struggled with meth addiction, and this was not his first arrest.

The main problem that Jason Underwood faces right now is that he is suffering from an array of potentially serious health problems, which have gotten a lot worse since he’s been bouncing between Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers. 

In short, the medical treatment he appears to be receiving in lockup is inadequate at best, and possibly life threatening. The latter is what he fears.

Certainly, it’s easy to surmise that Underwood may be needlessly freaked out by his symptoms and the physical discomfort they cause, or may be exaggerating a great deal. Or both. 

Yet, when WitnessLA spoke twice to a watch commander at MCJ about Underwood’s condition and his complaints, the watch commander—an administrator who was filling in as watch commander—told us he found Underwood “quite articulate” about his condition, and his concerns “credible.” 

 (We have the administrator’s name, but are not disclosing it.)

We’ll have more on Jason Underwood, and related stories in 2024, including the story of the jailhouse death of a young man whom we knew well, whose death was both tragic and entirely preventable.

In the meantime here are links to three examples of our 2023 stories about the county’s deadly jail problem.

 Most recently Taylor Walker reported on the system’s rash of drug overdoses, which account for approximately 20 percent of the the yearly jail deaths, according to the LA County coroner’s office. 

In another story, this one from September 2023, Walker wrote about the LA County Board of Supervisors “fight over funding alternatives to incarceration,” while the jails’ death toll again continued to rise.

One more disturbing story, this one from August 2023, was triggered by three deaths in Men’s Central Jail that occurred in the course of six days.

In this story you learn that the LA County Sheriff’s Department doesn’t report the names of the people who die in jail custody. The LASD provides basic information such as the person’s age, date of death, whether they were held pretrial or awaiting sentencing, and where they were detained.”

And when the county does publish autopsy reports, community members and others who examine individual autopsies say that too often the information is inconclusive and, in some cases the autopsy misclassifies deaths.


We’ll have lots more in 2024, on these and other critical topics, such as the plague of fentanyl overdoses that continue at LA County’s youth facilities, Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall and Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, neither of which are safe environments for either the youth in residence or the staff who work there.

2024 will also bring more chapters in our ongoing series,“Deconstructing the Conviction of Mark Ridley-Thomas.”

And please watch for new chapters in Taylor Walker’s multi-part series “Punishing Families,” about the pressing need to reimagine LA County’s child welfare system.

We believe 2024 will be WitnessLA’s best year yet. But right now we need your help. 

AND every $1 you give from now until December 31, 2023, will be doubled through the wonderful people at NewsMatch.

NewsMatch is the largest collaborative fundraising campaign to support nonprofit news in the U.S., benefitting members of the INN Network, like WitnessLA, that produce fact-based, nonpartisan news and information.

So, click here to be one of our supporters with a tax-deductible donation to WitnessLA, that NewsMatch will double from now until midnight on December 31, 2023.

You’ll find you can donate via PayPal, credit card, or debit card through Community Partners, our fiscal sponsor.

(IMPORTANT NOTE:  When donating to us through the link to Community Partners, be sure to select WitnessLA as your intended recipient from the drop-down menu.)

Or, if you prefer, you may also send a donation via check mailed to: 
WitnessLA c/o Community Partners
1000 N. Alameda St. Suite 240
Los Angeles, CA 90012 USA

Make the check payable to: Community Partners FOR WitnessLA

For your records, our fiscal sponsor’s tax ID number is: 95-4302067

Anything helps. $5, $10, $20, $50….$1,000….or…above

Also, if you donate through the Community Partners portal, you can choose to make a one-time donation — or you can set up a monthly, quarterly, or yearly donation.

Whatever you choose, every $ you send WitnessLA will help us continue to probe critical stories of justice and injustice that would otherwise be ignored.

Thank you for your help. We couldn’t do it without you!

Whatever you choose, we wish you a Happy Nearly 2024, and we are grateful for your readership

Celeste Fremon, Founder/Editor

Taylor Walker, Assistant Editor


  • O.K.
    I just now whipped out my credit card & donated $250.00 to meet tonight’s deadline.
    That’s because I very much believe that the work WitnessLA does advances the public good.

  • @Celeste-

    The medical care provided within the county jails is not the responsibility of the sheriffs department. Los Angeles County Department of Health Services (DHS) provides care to the incarcerated and is in accordance with care prescribed by their physicians. While this care might not be in accordance with the inmates wishes, it is prescribed by individuals with far more education and experience than the extreme vast majority of those incarcerated will ever have in their entire lives.

    Just like you mentioned, he could be “freaked out”. His paranoia could be the result of a life long addiction to narcotics which has led him to this place where he feels he knows what is best and what should be prescribed.

    You love mentioning that LASD operates the largest jail system in the world…. but they also handle the counties mental health population as well. Rather than digging a little deeper into this inmate’s past, you base the majority of your article off his claims. You’re going for likes and followers at this point.

    This is another fine example as to why I cannot fathom why anyone would want to take this job anymore. LASD’s tree has been shook since 2009, the bad apples have fallen. Some made great stories and got the boot, others worse…. and some withered away and faded into the abyss, waiting for retirement.

    I know you have it in you to explore both sides of the coin. Maybe that is a great resolution for 2024 for you… try and get the truth rather than scratching the surface. Because using this case in point; I’m gonna side with a bonafide, credentialed physician instead of someone who is sitting inside a county lockup. Because with the system working the way it does nowadays with a snake of a DA not filing charges… you really gotta have a past to qualify to be held to answer.

    Happy 2024 everyone….. one year closer to retirement and leaving this circus behind.

  • As always, there is 100% chance you will not die in jail if you don’t go! Crazy how many “innocent” people end up there. You said he used Meth, so he’s is guilty of a crime, “currently”, until they change the law AGAIN.

  • @Tradition of Service, you recall the days when LASD had Medical Services responsibilities? What led to the move to DHS. We’ll be waiting for a reply. Perhaps there is a shared problem, ever consider that?

  • I wonder what “low level” crime Mr. Underwood is accused of committing? Since MCJ houses mainly violent criminal offenders such Murderers, Robbery, Rapist, Child Sex offenders, and other “low level” criminals apparently. You have a few drug dealers, felon in possession of firearm, stolen vehicle, and few vehicle pursuits suspects but they are at MCJ because they violated their parole.

    If you are going to ask the public for money then at least attempt to report the facts in an unbiased manner. And on side note the watch commanders at MCJ have little (1 year TSB) to NO PATROL EXPIERENCE. So take that information with a grain of salt.

  • @John K- I do recall the days of Medical Services. I am not certain as to why the shift took place, but I would believe it’s for the better. The sheriff’s department isn’t the one responsible for the medical treatment of the population, so I don’t understand why they had their hand in the pot anyways. While LASD has countless “doctors” working in their ranks, they aren’t the ones tasked with providing care. LASD shouldn’t have a say in what treatment is provided…. these lines need to be very clear.

    The current model where DHS handles care, and LASD helps facilitate the transport for treatment is a great model. I just don’t like the blurring of the lines in this article. It makes the department out to be the bad guy. Let CHS do their thing, let LASD do theirs. There are throngs of medical staff in these facilities now. This type of article downplays the education and experience of the medical staff, and does nothing to address what might have already been provided to the inmate.

    Like with everything nowadays, there is copious amounts of documentation regarding everything. Rather than taking this guy’s word for it, dig a little deeper… instead of throwing crap at the wall to see what sticks.

  • Editor’s Note:

    Dear “Kitchen Sr,”

    Good question. Mr. Underwood was not charged with any of the violent crimes you named, or any other violent crime. But we appreciate the request for clarification.

    Happy 2024.


  • @Celeste-

    The fact is, this day and age there are countless crimes that have been decriminalized; and zero bail is flavor of the decade. This means, those in custody have a high recidivism rate, are held on terms under violation of probation/parole, or do not qualify for zero bail or “O.R.”.

    Kitchen Sr is right,”supervisors” sadly are often over educated and inexperienced or under-experienced. You go off of the word of a fill-in watch sergeant who might have zero experience in dealing with this inmate. This is a prime example of the failure in how LASD is operating this day and age. This fill-in sergeant who works administration gave partial validation to an inmate’s claim… an inmate he doesn’t know.

    This agency could’ve righted wrongs starting after the wave of investigations starting in 2009… taking responsibility for internal flaws; but instead they continue to nurture nepotism and promote on affiliation rather than accomplishment. But those that try to do right, no matter the consequence are still forced into the shadows.

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