Crime & Justice

Too little ‘out-of-cell’ time for mentally ill inmates inside LA jails, federal government says

The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles
The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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While the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has taken steps to improve health care and reduce the use of force in the county's sprawling jail system, a federal monitor says the agency is not getting inmates with serious mental health problems out of their cells often enough.

These inmates live in what’s known as high observation housing. There are around 700 of them housed in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown L.A. and the Central Regional Detention Facility for women in Lynwood.

Under a three-year-old agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, sheriff’s officials are supposed to make sure such inmates get out of their cells for at least 20 hours per week – 10 hours for recreation and 10 hours for therapy. The department is falling well short of that, according to monitor Richard Drooyan.

According to county data, 45 percent of the inmates with serious mental health problems at the Lynwood facility were offered 10 or more hours of unstructured, out-of-cell recreational time in the third quarter of 2017, he wrote in his report. The numbers were better at Twin Towers, where Drooyan said 79 percent of inmates with serious mental health conditions were offered sufficient out-of-cell recreational time.

Drooyan noted that the county did not report on the percentage of prisoners who were offered their 10 hours of therapeutic time per week. It’s unclear why, but sheriff’s and county health officials previously have not kept such data and have said they're creating new systems to start capturing it.

In a statement, the sheriff's department said there are other hurdles as well.

"There are some challenging areas that will take additional time due to the increasing size of the mental health population and of the restrictions related to the physical design of the jail," it stated. "We are continuing to identify and address systemic issues and are confident in the reforms thus far."

Walking outside of cramped jail cells and interacting with other inmates is crucial to treatment for schizophrenia, PTSD and other mental illnesses, according to experts.

Conversely, keeping people with a mental illness cooped up inside a cell for long periods of time is a bad idea, said American Civil Liberties Union Attorney Peter Eliasberg, who monitors the jails.

"It’s well established most people with mental illness really need out-of-cell time," he said. "Isolated time without any opportunity for socialization is very harmful to them and leads to their mental health getting worse."

The Board of Supervisors has approved a plan to build a 3,885-bed Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility that would replace Men’s Central Jail, which was built in 1963. The county is in the midst of preparing an environmental impact report and has not set a date to break ground.

The plan has drawn sharp criticism from activists. "Jails should not be functioning as health care facilities," Mark-Anthony Johnson told KPCC last year. He argued the county should put the money into community mental health programs.

The sheriff's department entered into the agreement with Justice after the federal government filed a lawsuit alleging a pattern of mistreatment of mentally ill inmates in county jails. 

Among the areas of progress cited by Drooyan: the county has hired dozens more clinicians to work inside the jails, and the sheriff has developed curriculum for 32 hours of de-escalation and verbal resolution training for deputies inside the jails.