The more than 2,000 inmates at Sybil Brand Institute, Los Angeles County's only jail for women, had settled into uneasy sleep one night last month when sheriff's deputies roused the maximum-security residents in Cell Block 5200.
After marching the women into a hallway and patting them down, deputies searched their living quarters, confiscating personal items--an unfinished blanket being knitted by one woman, candy bars and cigarettes, shampoo, letters ("excess mail")--as well as mattresses and uniforms, one inmate recalls.
"Fire hazards"--photographs and magazine cutouts that the women had put up to personalize their cells--were torn off walls.
"All they told us was that we were overdue for a search," said the woman, who has since been released. Jail authorities refused a reporter's request to interview women held in that cell block.
Asked what the search turned up, Sheriff's Lt. Jim Mulvihill said jail records do not show a search of Cell Block 5200 on the date given by the inmate.
"But (such) searches are conducted routinely . . . once a month at most," Mulvihill said. "We're always looking for something--we may have specific information--and we're also after contraband. . . . We find altered razors, candy above and beyond what they're permitted and excess linens, things like that. They hoard towels and blankets."
In the view of inmates who later contacted The Times, the raid was another example of the arbitrary and unreasonable treatment that recently prompted them to stage small-scale hunger strikes and to try to form an inmate advisory committee to handle complaints, settle disputes and work for better conditions.
"They (sheriff's deputies) threaten to take away the phones if we're loud or not acting (as if we feel) absolutely miserable," one inmate complained.
"I've seen girls stood up against the wall for an hour and a half for minor infractions," the woman added, "like a deputy not liking the way a girl looked at them, talking or laughing in the meal line or waiting for your partner. They (the deputies) can pull you out of line, which means you lose your meal."
Los Angeles County Municipal Judge Terry Smerling, who as a public interest lawyer in the late 1970s represented Sybil Brand inmates in a class-action lawsuit against the county, added: "The inmates are (treated like) girls. . . . No forceful personality, no ego (is tolerated). They've got to be submissive."
The inmates won some points in their suit, Smerling said, such as the rights to receive reading material in the mail, to be allowed to eat with knives and forks and to be included in work furlough programs just as male prisoners are.
The court also held unconstitutional Sheriff's Department practices such as denying access to telephones and the library and routinely classifying pretrial inmates as maximum security. And an appeals court later ruled that inmates could not be disciplined by being separated from the rest of the jail population without a hearing.
But Smerling said the women lost in their efforts to be allowed physical contact with family members, to spend more time outdoors, to be provided with better medical care and to have male deputies prohibited from stripping female inmates who are violent or disturbed.
Although jail conditions have improved somewhat since then, today's inmates still complain of overcrowding, cockroaches, arbitrary rules, inedible food, 15-minute meal periods, no more than three hours a week of outdoor recreation and inadequate medical care.
Inmates complain that they are not allowed to touch their children when they visit or to keep newborn infants with them (155 inmates are pregnant) and that family and friends routinely must wait several hours (as long as seven hours on weekends) for a 20-minute visit during which they talk by telephone while viewing each other through a glass partition.
"You can never hug or kiss your kids," said one former inmate, whose children are 8 and 10 years old. "And it really upset mine when they couldn't get to me."
They also complain about strip searches, limits on their access to both the law library and the beauty shop, and what they view as occasional brutality by sheriff's deputies, most of whom are women, too.
"It's by far the worst of the four jails I've been in," said a woman who recently spent a month at Sybil Brand on a federal parole violation.
But the woman in charge of Sybil Brand, Capt. Helena Ashby, said the mere fact that "the jail runs and runs humanely" at more than double its capacity is no mean feat. Nearly 2,200 women are crammed into a 23-year-old yellow cement building in what the state says is space for only 910.