Dangerous Jails: The Witness – Part 1

In January, WitnessLA and launched our second investigative series under the banner of The LA Justice Report. Our first investigation looked at how LA spends its gang intervention money.

This new investigation will examine the “culture of violence and fear” that allegedly exists inside the LA County jail system.

The following story is an illustration of why we think such an investigation is important.

*NOTE: This account is based on declarations given under penalty of perjury both by Esther Lim and by Christopher Brown, as well as interviews with Ms. Lim and with Peter Eliasberg.

We will hear from the spokesman for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and others in Part 2 of the story.


On Monday, January 24, 2011, ACLU Jails monitor Esther Lim
was seated in one of the seven cubicles reserved for attorneys in module 142 in the Twin Towers facility of the Los Angeles County jail system. She was there in cubicle number five (of the seven) in order to meet with an inmate named Christopher Brown, who was now seated in the matching cubicle directly opposite her. Lim and Brown were separated by a 2 by 3 foot window and spoke to each other via the telephones mounted on the right side of each cubicle.

It is a set-up akin to that depicted in nearly every prison visiting scene you’ve ever seen in the movies or on TV. Except that in Twin Towers, the public visiting area is located on the 1st floor near to the exit, whereas the attorney visiting rooms are inside the various modules in the jail’s interior.

[Click twice for full sized diagram.]

Lim is the latest in a string of So Cal ACLU jails monitors. The monitors were originally put in place after the ACLU sued the County of Los Angeles in federal court in the mid-1970s over what it believed to be unconstitutional conditions at LA’s Men’s Central Jail. The ACLU won the lawsuit—known as Rutherford v. Block, now just called Rutherford, for short—and, as part of the subsequent ruling that mandated improvements in jail conditions, the court appointed the Southern California branch of the ACLU as monitor, to make sure that the ordered changes were being made. Nearly four decades later, some changes have been accomplished, while others are depressingly slow in coming. More recently, however, the sheriff’s department installed special hot lines that allow inmates to call the ACLU to report complaints that they would like to see addressed.

Lim, who is in her late 20s, has been the monitor since last October and visits one of the LA County jail facilities every day of the work week except for Thursday. Much of her time on site is spent talking to inmates who have requested a meeting to tell her about some problem or other. The most common problems reported are things like lack of access to adequate medical care, too little out-of-cell time and not enough recreation.

Sometimes, however, the complaints are more dramatic and involve accusations of excessive use of force and other forms of brutality by the deputies toward the prisoners. Yet such tales are difficult to verify. An inmate who claims he was beat up by sheriff’s deputies usually has no witnesses other than the deputies he has accused of wrongdoing.

However on Monday January 24th, when a beating was alleged to have occurred between an inmate and two deputies, this time an outside witness present.

According to Lim, the incident in question began after she had been talking to Brown for about 30 minutes. She heard what she thought sounded like some kind of scuffle coming from the “staging area” outside two windows that were located on the far right wall of the attorneys room. She later described the noises in a sworn deposition as the “sounds of fists hitting a body.” Lim said she also heard thuds against the attorney room wall underneath the windows, and “other noises that sounded like a fight.” Hearing the commotion, Brown left his cubicle and moved toward the windows and the noises. Lim paused for a moment, then did the same.

What Lim saw at first confused her. An African American prisoner, whom she later learned was a 35-year-old named James Parker, was lying face down on the floor unmoving while, according to Lim, two sheriff’s deputies were punching and “kneeing” the prone man while simultaneously yelling “Stop fighting!” and alternately, “Stop resisting!”

For the first few seconds, Lim could not make sense of the scene. She could see, she said, that Parker was neither fighting back nor was he resisting. He wasn’t even flinching, despite the force of the blows. Instead, he was lying motionless on the floor as if unconscious.

With a nod toward the scene outside the windows, Brown turned briefly to Lim and shrugged. “See. It’s happening now,” he said.

After a bunch of punches, said Lim, one of the deputies tased Parker —first three or four times in his leg, then three or four more times in his back. All the while he kept shouting the same bizarre monotonic chant: “Stop fighting! Stop resisting!”

Parker’s body convulsed at each tasing, then went limp again. Lim thought irrationally that it looked as if the deputies were using a mannequin in inmate garb as a punching bag.

After about a minute of disbelieving observation Lim banged hard on the window with the palm of her right hand, hoping to get the deputies’ attention. The LASD deputies—whom she would later learn were named Ochoa and Hirsch—did not look up. Eventually Deputy Ochoa did look up and, according to Lim, looked at her hard and motioned her emphatically away from the window.

Spooked, Lim dutifully moved away. By that time a frightened Brown had also retreated from the window back to his side of the attorney client cubicle—except that he was no longer sitting in a chair, but lying on the ground as if trying to become invisible. After exchanging a few words with Brown, Lim gathered her purse and other belongings, left the attorney room and walked quickly to the elevator, which she took the first floor, then headed outside to the parking lot. She passed three or four deputies on her way out, but said nothing to them. “I was scared,” she said later. After watching the beating, she was no longer sure whom she could trust.

Instead of telling deputies, Lim called her boss, Peter Eliasberg, the ACLU/SC’s managing attorney. The ACLU immediately filed a complaint.

The next morning, Lim was back at the office reviewing the jail logs and reports that she gets from the sheriff’s department every day via email. She noted that there was a “Significant Use of Force” log entry for Twin Towers for Monday, the 24th.

The entry describing an altercation between two unnamed deputies and an inmate named James Parker who, according to the log, attacked the deputies and continued attacking even while being tased in the leg and the back.

Stunned at the alternate version in the log, Lim went to Twin Towers in the afternoon and where she talked with Brown briefly and arranged for a longer meeting in the attorney’s room the next day, Wednesday.

On Wednesday Lim brought one of the ACLU’s attorneys with her and the two met with Brown, who told the attorney and the monitor what had happened after Lim left the jail.



  • You know what Celeste, I told you awhile back about the upswing in the killings of officers in the line of duty and lo and behold another killed yesterday in Florida. Think you said something like you were keeping an eye on it.

    I’ve come to the realization that people like you truly care little about people like me and my son and the work cops put in to go after the worst of society. The risk they take is obviously secondary to the living conditions of known felons and your buddy gang members while incarcerated. Of course there are more things about their plight that bothers you as compared to what’s high on my priority list so instead of reading about these poor mistreated killers, rapists and dope dealers I’ll move on.


  • Contrary to popular belief, not everyone incarcerated is guilty. What about the innocent people arrested who do not have the money to bail out, yet sit in jail awaiting a trial for months? Do you believe this type of action is necessary — stereotyping all inmates as felons and gang members is clearly the problem.

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