ACLU: LA County jail guards perpetuate violence

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California says conditions inside Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles often are filthy - an allegation the L.A. County Sheriff's Department denies.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California says conditions inside Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles often are filthy - an allegation the L.A. County Sheriff's Department denies.

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Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies use violence to mete out discipline at the Men’s Central Jail, says a report the American Civil Liberties Union released Wednesday. In its annual report on the downtown lock-up, the A.C.L.U. calls the aging facility a “medieval dungeon” where prisoners live in fear of retaliation and abuse. A spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department declared that the report gets it wrong.

Mary Tiedeman spends a lot of time at Men’s Central Jail. She monitors the lock-up just east of Chinatown for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

As the A.C.L.U.'s Jails Project Coordinator, Tiedeman said a lot of inmates complain to her about guards who use violence to mete out discipline. She said the evidence is hard to ignore.

“I routinely see injuries – boot marks up the backs of people, black eyes, broken ribs," Tiedeman said.

ACLU attorney on new report on LA Men's Central Prison conditions from 89.3 KPCC on Vimeo.

KPCC's Frank Stoltze speaks with American Civil Liberties Union attorney Peter Eliasberg about a new report citing poor conditions at Los Angeles's Men's Central Jail, including overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, inmate-on-inmate assaults and excessive force being used by sheriff's deputies.

Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff, which oversees the deputies who guard the inmates, bristled at the allegations.

“That allegation, absolutely false,” he said.

Whitmore said Sheriff Lee Baca maintains a strict policy against the unnecessary use of force for any reason.

“There is not retaliation in our jails," he said. "It is inexcusable. It is inexcusable and it’s just wrong."

Whitmore said inmates may complain to the county’s Office of Independent Review. He said it staffs the jail with a civil rights lawyer.

But fear of retaliation remains high among some inmates, and many refuse to file complaints.

Antonio Medina, 38, nervously addressed reporters at the A.C.L.U. news conference. He refused to be photographed for fear that jail guards or fellow inmates would retaliate for something he said.

Medina spent 3 &frac12 months behind bars for driving drunk. The West L.A. office clerk said he saw one inmate suffer for speaking when he wasn’t supposed to.

“One of the inmates got pulled to the side and when he left, he was fine," Medina said. "When he came back, he was bruised – black eyes, couldn’t even open his left eye."

Medina said sheriff’s deputies told inmates the man had attacked them.

A.C.L.U. attorney Peter Eliasberg said there are too many complaints of abuse with too many similarities.

“It is simply impossible to believe that there is not a lot of truth in what we’re hearing about in these complaints," he said.

For years, a federal judge has monitored the downtown jail as part of a lawsuit filed by the A.C.L.U. Ninth Circuit Court Judge Harry Pregerson has ordered the jail to release inmates to relieve overcrowding. The A.C.L.U. said the facility still houses too many inmates and complained about the jails policy of releasing them from their cells just three hours a week.

Eliasberg said another ongoing issue remains the treatment of hundreds of mentally ill inmates who are supposed to go to the Twin Towers jail but end up in Men’s Central, which is ill-equipped to house them.

“There’s either no mental health treatment or the only mental health treatment received is psychotropic medication," Eliasberg said. "So these prisoners suffer a tremendous cost in terms of pain and suffering and their mental illness is getting worse and worse.”

The A.C.L.U.’s Tiedeman said sheriff’s deputies often confuse these inmates’ acting out with defiance, and punish them. She remembered one case in particular.

“The deputies had written him up and put him in the hole where he doesn’t get any out of cell time – no visits, no phone calls, no nothing – because he hadn’t appropriately followed their instructions," she said. "They thought he was on drugs."

Tiedeman said deputies eventually placed the inmate where he belonged.

Sheriff’s spokesman Whitmore responded:

“Everybody in our jails to the best of our ability are getting the care that is required by them," he said.

"But is it stretched? Is it strained? Absolutely.”

Whitmore said Sheriff Lee Baca and the ACLU agree on one thing – that L.A. County needs to replace its aging Men’s Central Jail. For now, county officials say there isn’t the money to do that.

The A.C.L.U. argues that the county should release non-violent inmates – most of them awaiting trials – on electronic monitoring to relieve what the organization calls inhumane conditions.