Crime & Justice

LA Sheriff still hasn't complied with a federal law on prison rape

The Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.
The Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Five years after Congress enacted rules for state prisons and local jails to address the problem of sexual assault behind bars, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has yet to fully comply with the law. The department says it's working as fast as it can, but notes that the effort is complicated, involving dozens of policy changes.

The sheriff’s civilian oversight commission will take up the matter Thursday at its monthly meeting.

The federal law creates 42 new requirements for lockups around the nation. It requires jails and prisons to better identify vulnerable inmates and potential predators; make reporting of assault easier; and for the first time, give victims access to a rape crisis center.

But the department still hasn’t implemented all of the rules and policies it developed more than one-and-a-half years ago.

"All of this is creating a really unsafe environment for people who are incarcerated in the jails," said Esther Lim, director of the jails project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

One federal survey estimates 3.5 percent of local jail inmates are sexually assaulted by other inmates or guards – which would mean about 600 L.A. County jail inmates are assaulted every year.

"If we could have done it faster, we would have," said the sheriff’s Custody Services Director Karen Dalton, who is overseeing the implementation of the new law.

The law requires re-working a lot of policies, Dalton said. But she does acknowledge that until now the department didn’t recognize the extent of the problem.

"We’re finally paying attention to this issue," she said.

The department has made important progress, Dalton said. It's set up a way for inmates to report sexual assault, including anonymously, to an 800 number. Chaplains, educators and volunteers who work inside the jails have received training on how to take a sexual assault complaint, she said.

Male guards in the women’s jail in prison must announce their presence in a cell or dormitory to alert women who may be washing or partially undressed, noted Dalton.

It was the arrest of a sheriff’s deputy for allegedly raping  two women at the Lynwood jail this summer that sparked questions about how well the department protects inmates from sexual assault.

The law also requires that inmates know the outcome of any sexual assault complaint they file against another inmate or a guard.

"People really raised an eyebrow about that," Dalton said. Jail staff in the past have tended to not think of inmates as victims who deserve to know what happened to the person who assaulted them.

Other things have surprised Dalton – like the risk of assault to a transgender woman when you place her in a gay dormitory full of men.

"I just didn’t appreciate that," she said.  "We were setting them up for vulnerability."

The federal law seeks to make significant changes in how jails and prisons view prisoner well-being. It goes beyond just physical safety, said Linda McFarlane of Just Detention International. The sheriff's department hired the L.A.-based group, which is devoted to eliminating sexual assault behind bars, as a consultant on the new policies.

"We’re looking at re-setting how the department looks at what it means to be safe inside detention," McFarlane said.

As for the delays, she was at a loss as to why the policies have taken so long to adopt.

"There’s been a lot of good work done," she said. "There is also a lot of work to be done."

Dalton refused to predict when the sheriff might be in full compliance with the law. But she predicted the new policies will have a significant impact.

"This is definitely causing a culture change in our jail system," she said. Some sheriff’s staff "get it right off the bat," she added, while noting that others need a little more coaxing about the reality of sexual assault behind bars.