WitnessLA gets calls from people inside of Los Angeles County’s jail system on a semi-regular basis. A great deal of the time, the callers just want to talk to someone.
But, in other instances, the jail residents–many of whom are past sources who’ve kept in touch—want to know if we can get them some help with problems they are facing inside the system’s various facilities, most particularly Men’s Central Jail.
Some of the problems are irritating but not endangering, such as mail sent to or from family members and/or lawyers, which seem repeatedly to fail to arrive. Some of the vanishing mail can presumably be chalked up to some glitch in the system. But much of the mail disappearance, according to civil rights attorneys we’ve spoken with who’ve also dealt with the problem, seems instead to be a petty form of abuse.
Sometimes, however, the problems point to more serious concerns.
In the case of one recent repeat caller who has some very challenging health conditions, he finds that his needed medication fails to follow him whenever he is moved between facilities for one reason or another.
This also occurs when he is sent to LA General Medical Center, because his health has taken a temporary turn for the worse. Again, when he returns to MCJ, or Twin Towers, the medication he’s been prescribed doesn’t show up for several days or far longer, despite the fact that his need for his medication is critical.
Yet, as WLA has frequently reported, missing medication is only one in a list of persistent dangers in LA County’s jail system.
Chained to benches and chairs
Late last year we wrote about the multiple ways in which reports by the county’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the ACLU of Southern California, pointed to staggeringly awful conditions in the jail system’s Inmate Reception Center (IRC).
The OIG’s report for the second quarter of 2022, described how people experiencing mental health crises were chained to benches and chairs, sometimes for two or more days while they waited to be processed.
Then, last fall, the state of affairs at the county’s jail intake center reached a disturbing new low, causing the ACLU to file an emergency motion on September 8, 2022, asking U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson, who oversees the county’s 2015 federal consent decree, to issue a temporary restraining order against the county.
Seven months later, on April 5 of this year, the ACLU filed a new set of documents in support of the motion to hold the still un-compliant county in contempt.
More recently, with the help of our wonderful pro-bono attorney, we have filed a motion to unseal some important evidence of abuse inside the jails.
(More on that issue later.)
Dying in lock-up
And then there are the deaths. Since the beginning of 2023, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has reported 30 in-custody deaths.
In MCJ alone, during the week between August 3 and August 9, there were three deaths.
In response to this most recent spate of people dying, Michelle Parris, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s California office, sent us the following statement.
“The Vera Institute of Justice calls for immediate action to stop the ongoing and tragic loss of life in Los Angeles County jails. The county’s continued failure to address the issue puts incarcerated Angelenos in undeniable peril. In the course of only six days, three more people—one just 20 years old—have died in the decrepit and dangerous Men’s Central Jail (MCJ), a facility with conditions even county officials have called ‘unconscionable.’ “
These losses bring 2023’s running death toll to 30, which Parris said means this year is “on track to be the deadliest on record for the country’s largest jail system.” Parris noted that the LA County Board of Supervisors “made important promises in 2020,” one of which was to make “care first” their default strategy whenever possible, “and use jail as a last resort.” It is “this mantra,” she said, that “needs to spur action in this moment of crisis.”
Men’s Central Jail, where the three recent deaths occurred, Parris wrote, should not even be in operation.
“The Board has agreed and stated its intent to close MCJ without a replacement,” Parris continued. “More than two years ago, the board commissioned a report—created and endorsed by the Sheriff’s Department and the Office of Diversion and Reentry—on how to close Men’s Central Jail within two years. It is unacceptable that no actual plan has been adopted. The board’s commitment to closing MCJ is further betrayed by the failure of the Jail Closure Implementation Team—created and funded by the board—to publish a single progress report in more than a year, much less address the mounting death toll. This does not reflect a county serious about its commitment to close what it acknowledges is ‘consistently ranked among the ten worst facilities in the country.'”
The responsible path forward is clear, said Parris. “The board must acknowledge the emergency at hand, commit to a timeline for closing MCJ within the next two years, and adopt a decarceration plan for MCJ immediately.”
Deaths and autopsies
The Vera Institute for Justice, for those unfamiliar, is well known for its partnerships with impacted communities and various government leaders in order to “implement solutions so that fewer people are behind bars, and everyone is treated with dignity.”
In response to the latest string of deaths, Sam McCann at Vera had this to say about LA’s ongoing and deadly jails crisis.
“For one thing,” said McCann, “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, wrote McCann, “community members and others who examine individual autopsies say that too often,” the county provides inconclusive information “and, in some cases the autopsy misclassifies deaths.”
Also, it should be noted that, of those who have died in LA County jails since the beginning of the year, 28 percent are Black men, 41 percent are identified as “Hispanic.”
McCann also noted that the “vast majority of those who have died”—18 of the 30—”were held pretrial.”
This means that many of those 18 were locked up, simply because they couldn’t afford bail.
Furthermore, according to a study released last year by UCLA researchers, in the cases of the jail deaths that UCLA examined, the cause of death, if listed at all, often appears to be at odds with other facts listed.
With the UCLA study in mind, WLA noted that, as of now, only one of 2023’s in-custody deaths has a cause of death listed.
The man whose cause of death they did list, was 49-years-old, and was listed as “pre-sentencing.”
The location where the man died was a “common hallway,” of the jail. The manner of death was listed as “suicide.”
Yet, while the county lists the dead man as someone who has killed himself, the means of death was listed as “multiple blunt force injuries.”
All of the above may be perfectly correct, of course.
But the juxtaposition of “suicide” and death by “multiple blunt force injuries,” cannot help but trigger questions.