LA Jails: New consent decree targets inmate abuse

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Los Angeles County officials agreed Tuesday to implement a long list of reforms designed to reduce the use of force against inmates inside its troubled jails. The agreement is part of a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a federal lawsuit that accused sheriff’s deputies of indiscriminately beating inmates.

Two years ago, the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence recommended a series of changes as well. Sheriff's officials have implemented many of them, including installing more cameras inside the jails and better supervision of deputies.

But the reforms approved Tuesday by the county supervisors go further and are enforceable by a federal judge, according to ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg.

“It did not have a hammer,” Eliasberg said of the citizens' commission. “It did not have the ability to go into a federal court and ask for contempt against the department.”

U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson will oversee implementation of the agreement.

L.A. Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he supports the settlement, saying it solidifies many of the reforms already under way by the department.

"I welcome the opportunity to work together with the designated experts, the courts and others to implement these changes,"McDonnell said.

"We’ve made tremendous progress and will continue to work hard in the key areas that we need to focus on. The need for joint cooperation with the department and the board to commit the needed resources to improve custody and make these changes is critical.”

The deal calls for a more restrictive use-of -force policy, expanded training for jail deputies and an improved process for inmates to file grievances. It has 106 individual requirements. Some are boiler plate (Example: force must be used as a last resort). Others are more specific.

Under one section, the agreement says force “must be de-escalated if resistance decreases” during an incident. In another section, the agreement says it should be a violation of policy “to harass or otherwise verbally provoke an inmate to justify the use of force.”

The agreement also says tear gas and Tasers should not be used “against inmates known to suffer medical conditions that may be aggravated or affected by such agents.”  That’s significant, says Eliasberg, because it could apply to mentally ill inmates who may be refusing to leave their cells.

“Mentally ill inmates often don’t understand the concept that there’s gas coming into a cell, and that means they are supposed to come out,” he says. “You can do severe damage physically and mentally” by gassing them repeatedly.

Training requirements include a four-hour course for deputies on "ethics, professionalism and treating inmates with respect."

A panel of three court-appointed experts designed the agreement, and will monitor its implementation. The experts are Jeffrey A. Schwartz, a criminal justice consultant, Robert P. Houston, a University of Nebraska corrections expert, and Richard E. Drooyan, who served on the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence.

The agreement arrives as the federal government continues a criminal investigation into use of force at the jails. A federal grand jury has indicted 20 current or former sheriff’s officials in connection with that investigation. Seven have been convicted.

In addition, the federal government has accused the Sheriff’s Department and county Department of Mental Health of failing to provide adequate medical care to mentally ill patients. The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking a separate consent decree on that issue. About 3,000 inmates are mentally ill.

Eliasberg, who has monitored the jails for more than a decade, acknowledges inmate abuse has declined. "We're seeing a lot less of the really severe stuff - the inmates who would have broken jaws or who would have their teeth kicked in."

At the same time, a recent report found use of force was up.

The new consent decree is welcome news for Michael Holquin, who successfully sued the Sheriff’s Department after deputies left him temporarily crippled and in a wheelchair following a 2011 beating.

“I am glad they are trying to make some sort of reform,” says Holguin, 34, a delivery truck driver in Ontario. “And I hope this new sheriff does everything he says he’s going to do.”

Newly elected Sheriff Jim McDonnell has promised to end abuses at the jail, as well as bring more accountability and transparency. Former Sheriff Lee Baca abruptly resigned in January, amid mounting accusations of deputy misconduct and criticism that he failed to keep watch over the jails.

The new agreement seeks to avoid a repeat of that:

“The Sheriff should be personally engaged in the management of the Department’s jail facilities, and the sheriff should regularly and adequately monitor the Department use of force police and practices,” it says.

That’s something that watchdogs say Baca failed to do.

This story has been updated.

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