by Leon Nyarecha
District Attorney Jackie Lacey was at the Twin Towers jail on the day my brother died alone in his cell. Lacey toured the jail facility periodically during my career as a videographer at the District Attorney’s office. But her visit in June 2018, while unremarkable for her, turned out to be especially significant for me. At the time, my 25-year-old brother, Lewis, had been incarcerated there for nearly three months, following his March 10 arrest for suspicion of trespassing and causing a brief commotion at a bank.
Lewis was suffering from schizophrenia. I personally spoke to Lacey about the situation and she told me she’d make sure he got help. Her office mentioned two diversion programs that might be suitable. But help never came — just as it hasn’t for so many mentally ill people who remain confined in Los Angeles County jails today.
When Lewis was first sent to Twin Towers, I hoped it would be good for him. My brother’s mental health had deteriorated noticeably in the weeks before his arrest. He had stopped taking his medication, and he would show up to my home at strange hours, often in a manic state. I was scared for him and wanted him to be safe, but I didn’t know what to do. After his arrest, I told the prosecutors that Lewis was not a criminal — he was just sick and in need of treatment and support. In their minds, however, jail was the best place for him to receive such support. After my own struggles to help Lewis, I believed them. Now I wish I hadn’t.
There is still so much I don’t know about my brother’s death. But I have a long list of questions that still haunt me.
On April 24, a little under six weeks before my brother Lewis died, he fell down in his cell and struck his head. I talked to my brother once or twice a week, during his time in jail, and he told me he believed he sustained a concussion during his fall but said, that while medical personnel saw him at the jail, he’d received no scan or other meaningful diagnostic screening.
A little over a week later, Lewis became dizzy and collapsed on the floor of the jail module, again hitting his head, this time causing a laceration. When the jail’s medical staff responded they found him disoriented and slurring his speech. Lewis was rushed to LA County USC Medical Center, where no one told the doctors that he was on a high dose of antipsychotic medication. Yet, after his release from the hospital with a diagnosis of dehydration or possibly meningitis, he was returned to his jail cell, apparently with little follow-up medical attention or any kind of regular supervision.
If jail officials were aware that Lewis had suffered two bouts of dizziness leading to two severe blows to his head in the course of two weeks, why was he subsequently left unattended by jail deputies and medical staff for extended periods of time, including the approximately 18 hours preceding his death?
Just after 11:00 a.m. on June 6, 2018, an inmate trustee noticed that something was wrong, and reported that an inmate “needs help and might be dead.” Lewis had missed dinner the night before, and breakfast that morning, but no deputies checked on him. After the trustee made his urgent report, the deputies finally responded and went to Lewis’ cell where they found him unconscious. Yet, as they removed him from his top bunk, the deputies somehow managed to slam my brother’s head into a steel table in the process, then laid him on the floor where a pool of blood formed around his head.
Although Lewis’ file required that he be housed on a lower bunk for reasons of safety, he was assigned to a top bunk when the deputies came to find him that morning.
A representative from the coroner’s office told me later in the day that Lewis died at approximately 11:36 a.m.
Jail officials claim Lewis had already fatally overdosed on his medication when the deputies’ inexplicably careless action occurred, but can we be certain? And if that’s the case, how was Lewis allowed to obtain enough prescription medication to allegedly overdose, when his jail medical records indicate he was not authorized to self-medicate? His medication was supposed to be administered to him at bedtime, yet records indicate that no jail officer or medical personnel had any contact with Lewis on the evening before his death. How, then, did he obtain a lethal dose of Seroquel?
All of these unanswered questions have brought me to an unavoidable realization: Lewis was never safe inside the Twin Towers jail. The facility is simply not equipped to give the care and attention necessary to address the needs of someone with mental health issues.
Perhaps no jail is. These are dangerous and degrading environments, where vulnerable people are at particular risk of being subjected to further trauma. Mentally ill individuals may have some access to medication and treatment while in jail, but that alone is not enough, especially when the rest of their time is spent confined to a cell or in fear of other inmates.
This must be an uncomfortable reality for Jackie Lacey, who has gone to great lengths to position herself as a champion for mental health, beginning in 2014 with the creation of her office’s Mental Health Division. While Lacey claims to be working to divert mentally ill people into alternatives to incarceration, my brother was still sent straight to a cell four years after she launched this initiative. And today, nearly one-third of all individuals held in LA county jails suffer from some sort of mental health issue. That’s more than 5,000 people, some 3,300 of which could safely be released into programs offering community-based clinical services, according to a recent RAND Corporation study.
Lacey’s office has shown a lack of urgency around addressing this issue. Too many people still languish in jail, where they face life-threatening levels of neglect. At the same time, prosecutors continue to fill cells with the mentally ill. Lacey may talk approvingly about the value of mental health diversion programs, but it’s clear that her prosecutors are still using incarceration as the default response for many people suffering from mental illness.
There was a time when I believed Lacey’s rhetoric on mental health, when I believed that my then-boss understood what families like mine were going through and that she was actually doing all she could to help. But since my brother’s death, I’ve come to question her true commitment to this issue.
Lewis would likely still be alive today if Lacey’s prosecutors had taken his mental illness seriously and treated jail as a last resort. Instead, they behaved as prosecutors do in so many other jurisdictions: They condemned a vulnerable person — a beloved brother, a loving son, and a talented musician — to suffer behind bars. And in the end, that decision cost Lewis his life.
Author Leon Nyarecha, 32, worked for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office as a videographer and photographer for five years. Following the tragic death of his brother in the Los Angeles County Jail in 2018, Leon left the DA’s office. He currently works for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services as a video production specialist.
In February 2019, the family of Lewis Nyarecha, including his brother, Leon, filed a civil lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department alleging negligence and battery, and describing “systemic and individual failures by Los Angeles County and its representatives that caused a premature end to a promising life.”
The lawsuit is ongoing.
Top photo of Lewis Nyarecha courtesy of Leon Nyarecha