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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON JAILS

County Chaos Is Beyond One Man

Overcrowding, unaccountable deputies, three-strikes law create fertile ground for abuses.

October 22, 1998|JOE DOMANICK | Joe Domanick is writing a book about California's three-strikes law

Last May it was discovered that Vietnamese-speaking Thao Quoc Huynh spent nine months in Los Angeles County Jail beyond his release date. Nine extra months that Sheriff Sherman Block blamed on "human error" and dismissed by adding: "I'm sure this guy knew he should have been out and he didn't say anything about it."

But Huynh hasn't been the only one in county jail kept beyond his release date. From 1995 through 1997, more than 1,200 inmates suffered the same fate, while others, including six murder suspects, were mistakenly released.

Unlike Huynh, 34-year-old Danny Smith never even got out of jail. Last August, he allegedly was choked to death by deputies while handcuffed. Meanwhile, the department is investigating 13 inmate-on-inmate beatings allegedly instigated by guards and allegations of a vigilante group of deputies brutally attacking mentally ill inmates who they felt were "coddled."

The last incident occurred despite the fact that conditions for the huge number of the mentally ill in L.A's county jails are in fact deplorable. After inspecting them, the U.S. Justice Department in its 1997 report found that many of those inmates were locked up almost around the clock in dank, tiny cells, let out to exercise just one hour a week, rarely permitted to shower and given improperly prescribed medications.

What's been the cause of the proliferation of such incidents? Certainly a broken-down and overcrowded jail system that books 250,000 inmates per year and deputies who have not been held accountable for their actions are a large part of the problem.

Yet even more heinous acts have taken place at state prisons. Guards have provoked fights between black and Latino prisoners, for example, and then shot them dead for fighting. And they have forced a prisoner into a tub of water so hot that it peeled off his skin.

The easy answers as to why these institutions seem like something out of a Soviet gulag is to say that this is the nature of jails and prisons, which are not intended to be pleasant places, and that guards must do what's necessary when dealing with society's dregs.

But those attitudes have an unacknowledged cost. California's three-strikes law is a good example. By voting for the 1994 law, the voters tacitly agreed to put people in prison for life for stealing a $10 pair of sunglasses or drinking out of a bottle of gin in a store and then putting it back on the shelf (actual cases). And having done so, the voters now have to face one of the consequences: Our county jails are housing thousands of desperate men demanding trials because the alternative is a life sentence, and these men are clogging a system that was already near collapse from overcrowding. When you combine those facts with a poorly managed jail that has still not instituted a modern computer system to track inmates, the result is chaos.

Brutal deputies have not emerged in a vacuum. Part of the cause is a seniority system that automatically assigns young, frequently ill-prepared deputies entering the department to jails and then leaves them there for up to six years before sending them out on patrol. Why then should we be surprised that a group of them forms a vigilante gang to "punish" mentally ill inmates or that others allegedly choke an inmate to death while he's handcuffed?

If our jail facilities for mentally ill inmates are squalid hellholes, why should we expect otherwise when the state and the county supervisors have let the county's mental health programs deteriorate and left the indigent mentally ill for the police and the jailers to cope with?

Statewide, we've just built 21 new prisons at a cost, with interest, of $10 billion. But until recently, we've been providing drug and other rehabilitation programs for just 400 inmates out of a prison population of 156,000. The attitude of the governors and Legislature for two decades has been that state prisoners are beyond change, permanently bad. So why should the prison guards have a different attitude?

We permit campaign finance laws that allow a prison guards' union to donate almost $1 million to a governor's race. And then we profess not to understand how a cover-up of unconscionable prison abuses occurs at the very highest levels of state government.

As for our brutal racial tinderbox jails, consider this: Your gut anger at crime may tell you that people who break the law deserve what they get. But next week, your irresponsible brother who failed to pay his traffic tickets might be thrown into jail, or your mentally ill cousin, or your son caught with some drugs or your spouse who had one beer too many before getting behind the wheel.

Jails and prisons may well be the truest mirror of a society's soul. If that's the case, it's not just the sheriff who is the underlying cause of the problems in our county jails. Whoever is in charge is merely its symbol.

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