ACLU seeks closure of downtown LA's Men's Central Jail

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sought to apply pressure to Los Angeles County today to close its downtown jail. The civil rights group said while the county's made improvements at the facility, it remains one of the worst lock-ups in the nation. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports.

Frank Stoltze: To highlight the problems that plague Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, the ACLU flew Margaret Winter in from Washington D.C. She's with the organization's National Prison Project, and she's visited jails and prisons across the country.

Margaret Winter: For sheer horror and brutality, Los Angeles County jail, and in particular Men's Central Jail, is the most nightmarish place I've seen.

Stoltze: Winter, who toured the facility a little over a year ago, said the downtown lock-up remains overcrowded and violent, with most of its 5,000 inmates forced to stay in their windowless cells 23 hours a day in "perpetual twilight." She pointed to a report commissioned by the ACLU that examined how these conditions affect inmates' mental health.

Winter: The combination of all of these conditions makes MCJ an incubator for serious mental illness.

Stoltze: Winter wondered whether the jail's latest suicide – that of a 22-year-old man last month – was connected to conditions at the facility. A sheriff's spokesman said the death is under investigation.

The Sheriff's Department runs the jails. The spokesman says 2,000 of its inmates are mentally ill. The ACLU report estimated the number at twice that. Lorie Mauer's brother ended up at Men's Central Jail after he was caught stealing. She said he is an alcoholic with bipolar disorder.

Lorie Mauer: As soon as he was over his alcohol withdrawal, they put him into the general population, offered him no mental health medications or help. We repeatedly called, asked for him to be seen by a psychiatrist. He was ignored for months.

Stoltze: Eventually, Mauer said, she and her parents were able to get help for her brother – who was released last year and is undergoing treatment for his condition.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the county's been working for years to improve the downtown jail.

Zev Yaroslavsky: The Board of Supervisors has invested tons of money in the jails and given the sheriff unprecedented increases in his jail budget over the last several years because of the lawsuits and the conditions at the jail.

Stoltze: In the past, Sheriff Lee Baca has said the ACLU exaggerates problems at the jail. In response to the latest concerns, a spokesman said Baca has reduced the jail's population and increased supervision there.

He said the sheriff wants to replace the aging facility. Supervisor Yaroslavsky said that'll cost hundreds of million of dollars – hardly what voters are willing to pay for.

Yaroslavsky: We haven't had a jail bond in this county pass the voters in 25 or 30 years. So we have to look for other alternatives to funding this.

Stoltze: So far, the sheriff and the county supervisors have been unwilling to do that. This week, they were busy figuring how to tap into federal economic stimulus money for more deputies – a much more politically popular move than fixing the jail.

The ACLU's Melinda Bird said other jail systems are addressing overcrowding and mental health problems.

Melinda Bird: New York has done this. New York reduced its jail population through alternatives to detention that included electronic monitoring, drug and alcohol treatment programs, close supervision, even vocational training.

Stoltze: Bird said the progress in fixing Men's Central Jail has been "glacial" – and she threatened to go to federal court if the county doesn't address them soon.