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ACLU Criticizes Jail Overcrowding

Law enforcement: Group threatens to sue if the Sheriff's Department does not remedy ills at 10 county facilities.

March 14, 1997|TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some inmates are sleeping on the tables in the mess hall, others on the pews in the three chapels at the severely overcrowded Men's Central Jail. And those are the lucky ones.

There are many others who are sleeping on the concrete floors in overcrowded cellblocks, occupied by men who have not showered for days.

Even though the multimillion-dollar Twin Towers jail has partially opened for a trial run, conditions in the rest of the 10-facility jail system have reached the worst level in years, American Civil Liberties Union officials say.

On Thursday, ACLU lawyers met with Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department brass to demand immediate action on a slew of problems--from the lack of bed space to a dearth of medical services--that have dramatically worsened over the past two months.

The ACLU says that if conditions do not improve quickly, it will consider taking legal action as it has in the past.

"This is the closest we have been to getting back into the litigation mode for years and years," said Paul Hoffman, a legal consultant to the ACLU.

"We don't want promises," he said. "We want results."

Attributing the overcrowding to factors including a labor slowdown by sheriff's deputies, new rules limiting the types of convicted inmates allowed out on overnight work release and seasonal increases in the inmate population, department officials say they are considering a number of steps to remedy the situation.

Among the proposed solutions: Opening the full 4,100-bed Twin Towers jail at an accelerated pace; reconfiguring a rating formula the department sometimes uses to determine how much time convicted inmates must serve behind bars, and more quickly shipping convicted felons to state prisons.

"It's not going to be easy to fix," said Undersheriff Jerry Harper, who met with the ACLU to discuss the jail conditions. "It's not something we can just fall off the turnip truck and do. It's going to need continuing focus."

Under a 1987 court order, the jail system's population is not supposed to exceed 19,173 inmates. On Thursday, however, there were more than 21,300 inmates in the 10 jails. The two most overcrowded were Men's Central Jail, which was about 1,200 inmates over its 6,800-inmate limit, and the North County Correctional Facility, which was 800 over its mandated limit of 3,400 inmates.

The ACLU began complaining about the overcrowding several weeks ago, and on March 3 the group sent a three-page letter demanding action. As of this week, however, ACLU lawyers said they had seen little improvement.

"We went in yesterday and I was appalled to see that there was no change," said Silvia Argueta, an ACLU attorney who monitors jail conditions. "The situation is horrible. There's no other word for it."

The overcrowding, ACLU officials say, is about as bad as it was 10 years ago, when a federal judge ordered the Sheriff's Department to take drastic steps.

"This is the worst it's been for quite some time," said Hoffman. "The conditions have deteriorated to the point where they do not meet constitutional requirements."

Among the problems:

* Inmates have gone without showers for up to seven days. Some have resorted to taking "bird baths," simply splashing themselves with water from sinks.

* Prisoners have reported sleeping on the floors for days, and even weeks. By law, each prisoner is supposed to be assigned a bunk--or at least a makeshift mattress--within 48 hours.

* Clean clothing, distributed to inmates by the sheriff, is sometimes hard to come by. Some prisoners have complained that they've been forced to wear the same underwear for more than a week.

The ACLU has set up another meeting with sheriff's officials on March 24 to discuss their progress.

Traditionally, the jail population increases at this time of year, sheriff's officials say. Making matters worse, they say, members of the Assn. of the Los Angeles Deputies union, who are seeking a raise, have been taking longer than usual to place inmates on buses bound for court and other jail facilities.

The rise in the jail population may have been further compounded by the fact that in January the sheriff heightened the criteria to enroll inmates in its work-release program.

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