EDITOR’S NOTE: The article below is Part One of WitnessLA’s two-part investigation into the culture of violence and abuse that, for years, has been reported to exist inside the Los Angeles County Jail system.
This 6-month investigation was reported and written by Matt Fleischer (and copy edited by Craig Gaines). It is the second investigative series to come out of the LA Justice Report, which was created through a partnership between WitnessLA and Spot.Us.
DANGEROUS JAILS – Part 1:
A Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department whistleblower reveals to the LA Justice Report that groups of rogue deputies have flourished for years inside the nation’s largest jail system while the LASD command staff looked the other way.
By Matthew Fleischer
What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons. It comes home with prisoners after they are released and with corrections officers at the end of each day’s shift. When people live and work in facilities that are unsafe, unhealthy, unproductive, or inhumane, they carry the effects home with them. We must create safe and productive conditions of confinement not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it influences the safety, health, and prosperity of us all.
—2006 report by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, Vera Institute of Justice
Juan Pablo Reyes says he was just doing his job on the afternoon of Friday, December 10, 2010, when he picked up a letter he found lying on the ground steps away from a deputy station on the third floor of Los Angeles County’s Men’s Central Jail at the northeast end of downtown Los Angeles. An inmate inside CJ, as Men’s Central Jail is called, Reyes, 30, was sweeping the floor as part of his daily duties as a trustee—a job that grants select inmates special privileges and work details. Trustees are chosen by sheriff’s deputies, and the position is reserved for inmates who are considered reliable.
The Los Angeles County jail system is made up of seven facilities housing an estimated 18,000 to 19,000 inmates on any given day, making it the nation’s largest jail complex. With a daily population of about 4,350, CJ is the largest of the seven. (Jails are operated by the county and primarily hold people awaiting trial plus those sentenced to short-term incarceration. Prisons are long-term lock-ups run by the state or federal government.)
Reyes was in CJ for a 360-day term on a domestic abuse conviction arising from a custody dispute—for making criminal threats against the mother of his child. Not exactly a saint. But at 5-foot-9 with a medium build, he’s an unimposing man, with no tattoos and no gang affiliation. This was his first arrest and he did everything he could to steer clear of trouble inside the jail.
It was around 1:30 p.m. when Reyes discovered the errant letter and immediately walked it to the nearest deputy. It never occurred to Reyes that his action would be viewed as out of the ordinary. For months he’d been performing similar duties, sweeping and cleaning and tidying the deputies’ desks and bathroom, with no problems.
But this particular deputy, whose full name Reyes doesn’t know, had a reputation among inmates as being especially unfair, quick to rile, and even violent. The deputy accused Reyes of stealing the letter—a charge Reyes vehemently denied. If he had stolen it, why was he handing it over willingly now? But the deputy’s shift was nearly over and he seemed anxious to leave, so he dismissed Reyes. “We’ll deal with this on Sunday,” said the deputy.
The deputy made good on his threat. Around 11 on Sunday morning, the deputy who accused Reyes of stealing the note came to Reyes’ cell on the 3700 module with another guard in tow. The deputies told Reyes to change into his standard blues, the garb that county jail inmates are issued for daily wear. The inmate did as he was told. The deputies then cornered the inmate and told him if he fingered other inmates for drug possession—“coke or crystal”—they would forget he stole the letter the previous Friday. Reyes says he told deputies he “knew nothing.”
Unsatisfied with Reyes’ answer, they told Reyes to exit his cell and put his hands on the hallway wall. As Reyes complied, he says he watched as the deputies put on plastic gloves. Moments later, the beating began. According to Reyes, they hit him in the face with their fists, fracturing the orbital bone in his left eye socket, and continued hitting him behind his head, kicking him in the ribs when he fell to the ground. The deputies eventually relented, but they were far from finished with Reyes.
Reyes says deputies then took him out of his cell and moved him to the laundry room of the 3600 module. Once inside the room, deputies told Reyes to strip. He did as he was told, and deputies immediately took him out of the room and paraded him naked across the 3600 hallway for the other inmates to see. “Aqui va un maricon caminando!” Reyes says the deputies shouted over the intercom for all the other inmates to hear—“Here’s a faggot walking.” When they finished, deputies shoved him in a cell that was not his own. If Reyes was relieved to be free of his deputy tormentors, that feeling was short lived. The new cell contained three inmates. Two were Latino men with tattoos indicating they were Southside gang members. The other was African-American; Reyes didn’t know whether he was in a gang.
According to Reyes, this was a breach of a major unwritten rule inside CJ, one that all deputies are aware of. Reyes describes himself as a paisa, someone born in Mexico with no gang affiliation.
“A paisa is not supposed to be placed with Sureños [Southern California gang members],” says Reyes. “The deputies knew what was going to happen to me.”
For the next eight hours, Reyes says the two Southsiders punched and kicked him mercilessly, while the African-American inmate kept watch. But as bad as the beating was, the pain was nothing compared to what happened when the lights went out at 10:30 p.m. Under cover of darkness, Reyes says, the two Southsiders took turns raping him, pausing only to humiliate him further by holding him upside down and flushing his head in the toilet. Reyes says he passed out several times from lack of oxygen. Deputies, whose job is to patrol the line every hour to prevent such abuses, appeared to notice nothing was amiss. Whenever they made their rounds for “cell scans,” the African-American inmate flushed the toilet repeatedly to drown out Reyes’ screams for help.
Flushes or no, Reyes believes the deputies knew exactly what was going on. “Even if they saw something, they saw nothing,” he says.
At 7 a.m., several doors on the 3600 cellblock slid open for a “pill call”—when inmates are given their meds. Reyes saw a chance to escape. When his own cell door opened, he dove into the hallway, yelling for help. He ran to the laundry room, where, he says, a Christian aid worker saw him and demanded he receive treatment for his injuries.
Reyes had a fractured orbital bone and possibly a broken rib. His face was a discolored and badly swollen mess and he had difficulty walking due to his brutal sexual assault. On December 26, two weeks after the alleged beating, he was taken to Los Angeles County+USC Hospital, where doctors confirmed the orbital fracture and said he would require surgery to repair his eye. He spent four days in the hospital, but on December 30 he was released directly from the jail ward of County+USC, more than a month before his sentence was up. He has yet to receive the surgery he needs.
Reyes says jail authorities interviewed him about his beating while he was still in CJ, but kept his mouth shut about deputy involvement in his injuries for fear of retribution. He says one of deputies who beat him was present for the interview.
“This type of thing happens all the time [inside CJ],” he says. “No one talks.”
Reyes’ story sounds like the script for an episode of HBO’s violence-haunted prison series, Oz—a nightmare so perverse only Hollywood could conceive of it. Yet veteran civil rights attorney David McLane became convinced Reyes was telling the truth and agreed to take his case.
“Guards have a constitutional duty to keep inmates safe,” says McLane. “Based on my experience, inmates typically do not make up stories about sexual abuse.”
LASD spokesman Steve Whitmore “respectfully decided not to comment” regarding Reyes’ story and a list of other questions put to him by the LA Justice Report.
But Reyes is only one of many former CJ inmates alleging abuse. For years the Southern California ACLU, various civil rights lawyers and other advocates have been documenting cases of inmate abuse by deputies inside CJ. They tell of rogue groups of deputies who perpetrate these abuses virtually unchecked, and of the pressure put on inmates and the majority of law-abiding deputies to stay silent.
“I have investigated violence in big prison and jail systems all around the country,” says Margaret Winter, who, as the associate director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project has investigated and challenged violations of prisoners’ rights in jails and prisons all over the United States. “I have seen what’s happening in places like Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. But I have never seen anything that begins to parallel what is happening in the LA County Jails in terms of viciousness and the brazenness with which it’s perpetrated.”
The FBI is investigating the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which runs all LA County Jails, over an incident in which deputies allegedly knocked an inmate unconscious and then beat him for several minutes in the Twin Towers jail last January. Deputies evidently tried to cover up the abuse but, as luck would have it, this time ACLU jails monitor Esther Lim was visiting with another inmate in an adjoining room from where the incident occurred—and thus witnessed close up as the deputies allegedly beat and Tasered the inmate, whom Lim described as “limp … like a mannequin” while he was being pummeled.
Yet for all the reports and the lawsuits, in the past there has been only sporadic news coverage of the issue, and little or no public pressure on the Sheriff’s Department to investigate the patterns of abuse. Despite the work of the ACLU and others, the Sheriff’s Department has been able to deflect charges like Reyes’ with a simple refrain: “Prisoners lie.”
In cases where tales of abuse were more difficult to deny—where there may have been witnesses or physical evidence like broken bones or, in extreme cases, a death—the department has conceded there may be problems in CJ, but that the lack of video cameras inside the facility makes it difficult to tell who is really at fault.
“We’ve got to start aggressively pursuing getting cameras in there,” LASD spokesman Whitmore told the LA Weekly in May in response to the story of a man who was allegedly beaten up by deputies while visiting his brother in CJ.
In the same Weekly story, Michael Gennaco, chief attorney in the Office of Independent Review, the civilian oversight group created in 2001 to monitor the LA County Sheriff’s Department, agreed with Whitmore. “Cameras tend to be tiebreakers” in deciding who is at fault in he said/she said incidents between inmates and deputies, he said.
Sheriff’s Department officials have also repeatedly argued that the problem is with the jail itself, that CJ is old and outdated and needs to be torn down and rebuilt to ensure the safety of those inside. “The jail is the oldest in our system,” Baca told the LA Times in November 2007. “It has outlived its time.”
A six-month investigation by the LA Justice Report, however, has uncovered new information from a source well placed inside the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, a whistleblower who is intimately familiar with the workings of Men’s Central Jail, who informed us that rogue cultures have been allowed to flourish for years inside the facility. Our source maintains that Sheriff’s Department officials at the highest levels have known since at least 2005 that there were serious problems with groups of deputies who operate inside Men’s Central Jail almost like street gangs, complete with distinguishing tattoos and handshakes.
According to our whistleblower, who agreed to speak with us on the condition of anonymity, the problem of inmate abuse in LA County Jails, often led by such groups, has been ongoing for the better part of a decade. As far back as 2006, top-ranking Sheriff’s Department officials ignored the advice of their on-the-ground commanding officer inside CJ, who wanted to break up the deputy gangs he saw as a serious problem. And a multimillion-dollar plan to install cameras inside CJ was abandoned in the same year, 2006, despite widespread reports of abuse inside the jail.
Our whistleblower told us that Juan Pablo Reyes’ story is not an aberration, nor was his alleged abuse a problem of architecture or lack of video cameras. Incidents like the brutality that Reyes describes are the result of years of neglect and mismanagement from the highest levels of the Sheriff’s Department.
THE WORLD OF THE 3000 BOYS
Significant cracks in the Sheriff’s Department “prisoners lie” excuse began to surface last fall, when news broke that a deputy gang calling itself the 3000 Boys was operating on the third floor of CJ—the same floor on which Juan Pablo Reyes claims he was beaten. Although those working inside CJ knew about the gang for years, the 3000 Boys gained public notice in the aftermath of a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Christmas party in Montebello on the night of December 9, 2010, two days before Reyes says he was assaulted. Near the end of the party, nearly a dozen 3000 Boys allegedly ganged up on two deputies not in the third-floor gang, leaving the outnumbered pair badly beaten.
“This was not a fight,” says Gregory Yates, the lawyer representing the two deputies in a lawsuit against the county. “It was a beatdown.”
When news broke more than three months after the alleged brawl that the LASD had taken the nearly unprecedented step of firing six of the deputies said to be involved in the fight, information began to leak out about the exploits of the most aggressive of the brawlers. The group, it seemed, had matching tattoos, threw gang signs, and for years allegedly ran the third floor of CJ by intimidating inmates and even fellow deputies who stood in their way.
Last spring, KTLA documented the case of third-floor CJ inmate Evans Tutt, who spent 11 days in the hospital after what he says was a beating with fists and flashlights at the hands of the 3000 Boys. The story described the 3000 Boys as “exhibiting the same ganglike behavior and criminal activity as the jailed inmates they’re guarding.”
In the fallout of the 3000 Boys revelations, the Sheriff’s Department has attempted to deflect attention away from its own culpability in failing to stop gangs of deputies from operating inside its jails. In an interview with KTLA, LA Sheriff Lee Baca wrote off the Christmas fight as a boys-will-be-boys case of drunkenness and dismissed talk of larger problems inside his jail system.
“If you don’t know how to deal with someone who is threatening you, who is also wearing a badge, then why are you a cop?” Baca said in the KTLA interview, addressing deputies who complained about mistreatment at the hands of the 3000 Boys. “I think [these deputies] need to man up and say, listen, I’m not a wimp.”
But contrary to Sheriff Baca’s statements to KTLA, the LA Justice Report has discovered that in the past few months, the Sheriff’s Department has quietly taken action to strip deputy gangs of their clout inside the jails. In May, Men’s County Jail began instituting a rotating assignment policy inside the jail. For instance, deputies who would typically spend most of their time working on the 3000 floor are now being rotated to other parts of the jail—2000, visitation, the library, etc.—thereby physically separating the guards in the hope of limiting the influence of the abusive cliques.
The strategy is, of course, important and commendable. But in 2006, long before the current media firestorm forced the department into action, that same policy was ordered by Captain John Clark, who was then the commanding officer in charge of Men’s Central Jail. At that time, levels of deputy-on-inmate force were extremely high inside the jail, and it was known at the highest levels of Sheriff’s Department management that deputy gangs played a significant role in that violence. The 3000 Boys were already in operation in 2006, however, according to our whistleblower, and they may not have even been the worst deputy gang operating inside the jail.
“There were 3000 Boys, 5000 Boys and especially 2000 Boys,” says the whistleblower. “Back then, things were almost as bad on 2000 as they were on 3000. They might have even been worse.”
Documents obtained from a Public Records Act request support our whistleblower’s contention: In 2006 there were 144 deputy-on-inmate force incidents—or “use-of-force incidents”—on the 2000 floor of CJ, compared with 110 on the now-infamous 3000 floor.
According to our whistleblower, Clark traced the problem back to entrenched deputy gangs and devised shift rotations as a means of correcting it. Many deputies—in particular the members of the jail’s various deputy gangs—were not pleased with Clark’s decision and sent then-Assistant Sheriff Paul Tanaka, now undersheriff, hundreds of emails in protest of proposed shift rotations.
Clark assumed that Tanaka would back him and would have at least experimented with shift rotation given the high rates of violence inside the jail, the potential for lawsuits, what our whistleblower describes as the full knowledge of problematic deputy gangs by Sheriff’s Department upper management, and the fact that Clark was dealing with CJ’s operations day to day thus had the best grasp on the facility’s problems.
Tanaka did not back Clark.
Instead, Tanaka spiked the shift rotation idea and Clark was removed from his position as commander of CJ and transferred out of the Custody Division. He now works in the transportation wing of the Sheriff’s Department.
“The result,” says our whistleblower, “was the authority of the [jail’s] captain was completely gutted.”
Captain Clark did not dispute the whistleblower’s claims when he spoke with the LA Justice Report, but offered no additional comment, citing an “ongoing investigation.”
Incidentally, a 2007 LA Times story describes a tattoo on Tanaka from the infamous early-’90s LA County Sheriff’s gang the Vikings. That gang was accused of targeting minorities in the street and was labeled a “neo-Nazi white supremacist gang” by a federal judge.
Undersheriff Tanaka did not respond to repeated calls for comment for this story.
In the years that followed Clark’s transfer, uses of force remained higher inside Men’s Central Jail than in any of the county’s other jail facilities—especially on the second and third floors. In 2007 there were 90 and 100 use-of-force incidents on the second and third floors, respectively, out of 367 incidents at the facility. That same year there were only 83 total use-of-force incidents at the North County Correctional Facility, which has the second-largest inmate population in the LA County system after CJ.
And even when use of force appeared to dip, incidents of “significant” force (involving head strikes, broken bones, hospitalizations and inmate complaints of injury) shot up, according to internal Sheriff’s Department documents obtained by the LA Justice Report. In 2006 there were 440 total use-of-force incidents inside CJ, and 182 individual uses of significant force by deputies against inmates. (Note: According to LASD math, if there are three deputies hitting an inmate, this counts as three individual uses of significant force.) By 2007, the use-of-force number had dropped to 367 in CJ; but there were 219 incidents of individual significant force. In 2008, the total use-of-force count was down to 273, but the individual uses of significant force jumped to 282, suggesting that a large percentage of that year’s force incidents involved more severe levels of violence and had multiple deputies joining in.
The documents also show that the vast majority of this force was “nondirected,” meaning a sergeant or superior officer was not present to authorize its use. For instance, only 10 percent of all incidents in 2008 were “directed”—despite the fact that protocol dictates a sergeant should be notified the moment force appears to be inevitable.
In the three years after the decision to abandon shift rotation, Sheriff’s Department Internal Affairs involvement inside the jail tripled—from four investigations per year in 2006 to 12 in 2009. Internal Affairs is called in to investigate only the most serious force incidents—broken bones, head strikes, severe hospitalizations or death. A rise in the number of IA investigations is good indicator of problems inside the jails, Mike Gennaco told the LA Justice Report.
The culture that created the 3000 Boys extends well beyond the six deputies who were fired for allegedly beating their brethren—and it remains alive and well inside Men’s Central Jail.
THE CAMERA “SOLUTION”
In the past few months, the Sheriff’s Department has tried to assuage concerns over alleged abuse at CJ by announcing plans to install a $7.2 million camera system inside the jail, which the County Board of Supervisors has approved and appropriated. But the LA Justice Report has discovered that in 2006, a $12 million plan for a closed-circuit surveillance system was designed for CJ—only to be abandoned.
The plan was devised in the wake of the November 2005 death of Chadwick Shane Cochran—a mentally ill inmate who was stomped to death inside CJ by gang members. LA County wound up settling with Cochran’s family for $1 million after it was determined deputies had been negligent in supervising the inmates.
To prevent such incidents from happening again, on November 22, 2005, the County Board of Supervisors put out a board paper requesting the Sheriff’s Department to explore the possibility of expanding camera surveillance inside CJ. The Sheriff’s Department came back several months later with a detailed plan to install
1,200 cameras inside CJ at a cost of $10,000 per camera.
However, that plan was never enacted. On August 26, 2006, it was marked “received and filed” by the Supes—which is a bureaucratic way of saying “thanks but no thanks.”
Why the LA County Board of Supervisors spent time and resources commissioning a detailed plan only to ignore it when it arrived at its doorstep is unclear. But though the board deserves its share of the blame for the lack of cameras inside CJ, Sheriff Baca is at least equally responsible for the plan going nowhere. We spoke with a longtime Board of Supervisors insider who told us that if Baca really wanted the plan, he would have pushed much harder for it.
“He would have pressed it. He would have revisited it in different ways and even played the media card.”
Baca did none of those things. Instead, he took to the media several months later—not to ask for cameras, but to ask for a new jail. Our whistleblower, who saw the detailed camera plans back in 2006, says that the Sheriff’s Department was never really behind the plan for cameras. CJ was going to be torn down, went the thinking, so why waste $12 million on a system that would be scrapped along with the jail in a few years?
CJ, of course, was not torn down. Now, five years and multiple deaths, beatings and lawsuits later, the Sheriff’s Department has announced that it is doing everything it can to get cameras installed ASAP.
But while cameras have the potential to help improve accountability for abuses inside CJ, they are not a cure-all.
CJ already has some video surveillance within its walls. For instance, there are multiple cameras in the hallway of the fifth floor. And though there are not as many use-of-force incidents on that floor as there are on floors two or three, where there are no cameras, incidents still occur there.
Our public records request indicates there were 37 use-of-force incidents on the fifth floor in 2008—compared to 72 on 2000 and 70 on 3000. The Sheriff’s Department will not release information describing the exact nature of these incidents, but according to our whistleblower and other sources, a great many of them constituted abuse—even with the cameras.
In one 2009 incident that occurred in the hallway of the fifth floor, directly in front of cameras, a deputy called for the strip search of an inmate who had approached him without permission.
“This is often a necessary procedure,” says our whistleblower, when asked about the incident. “You’d be amazed at the things these guys can hide in their butts: shivs, knives, blunt instruments.”
But while the strip search itself was not problematic, the manner in which it was carried out was. Strip searches are supposed to be conducted in private, with the consent and presence of a supervisor. But the deputy neither called for backup nor took the inmate aside. He conducted the search without the proper signoff by a supervisor, on the wall in the middle of the hallway, in full view of dozens of other inmates.
“That’s a violation of an inmate’s dignity,” says the whistleblower. “These are often very bad men we deal with, but you just can’t do anything you want to them.”
Things escalated from there. The officer put the inmate on the wall, made him strip and squat and told him to cough. No contraband was found. But instead of finishing the search promptly, the officer took his time—keeping the inmate naked and squatting on the wall for more than a minute.
“This procedure can and should be completed in about 15 seconds,” our informer says.
The officer presumably would have kept the inmate squatting longer, but the inmate eventually stood up without permission in protest. The deputy took the inmate to the ground and the fight was on from there.
“It should have never gotten to that point,” insists our whistleblower.
The 2009 incident pales when compared with more extreme beatings by deputies and inmate-on-inmate violence and sexual assault that deputies allegedly either facilitated or ignored. The ACLU has filed sworn declarations from more than 28 inmates alleging similar and far worse abuse than the strip-search episode in the past 18 months. Additionally, the LA Justice Report spoke with a longtime volunteer inside CJ who told us he witnesses comparable abuses “all the time.” (The volunteer asked not to be named so he could continue doing his work inside the jail system.)
In one such incident, our source remembers seeing an inmate hit in the back of the head with a flashlight by deputies and then, after he collapsed, beaten on the ground—for improperly putting his hands in his pockets. Our source describes this kind of brutal deputy response to a seemingly minor infraction as “business as usual.”
Our source also reported seeing “dozens” of instances of sexual humiliation in the form of public strip searches: “[Deputies] always conduct those in the hallway in front of everyone,” says our source. Keep in mind this source is civilian—someone around whom deputies would presumably exercise more caution.
If deputies are already getting away with this kind of sexual humiliation in full view of hallway cameras and civilians inside the jail, is it reasonable to believe that a more extensive network of cameras alone would eradicate CJ’s entrenched culture of abuse?
“You could build a brand-new jail and install a $100 million camera system—none of that would matter,” says our whistleblower. “If you don’t change the culture of these facilities, nothing is going to change. And it all starts at the top.”
“This isn’t happening in East Overshoe, Mississippi,” says the ACLU’s Winter. “This is happening downtown in a major international city.”
In Part 2 of our series “Dangerous Jails,” we’ll look deeper into the LA County Jail system culture that fosters inmate mistreatment and abuse—and immediate changes that can be made to the system that don’t involve costly capital investments.
NOTE: If you would like to contribute $1 or $20 (or anything in between) to our ongoing investigative series DANGEROUS JAILS click here.