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L.A. Jail Safety Concerns Detailed

A state panel is told of dire conditions at Men's Central Jail, the site of five recent inmate deaths. Staff shortages, scant resources are cited.

June 05, 2004|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

Jail officials told a state Senate select committee on Friday that safety is undermined by the daily movement of thousands of inmates in and out of cells in Los Angeles County's crowded and antiquated Men's Central Jail.

The committee hearing was convened by state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) after five inmate deaths since October in the Los Angeles County Jail system.

Those included the strangling of inmate Raul Tinajero on April 20. Investigators allege that another inmate, against whom Tinajero had just testified in court, roamed the jail for hours before hunting down and strangling Tinajero in his second-floor cell.

Assistant Sheriff Doyle Campbell told the committee that Tinajero was properly housed in a cellblock separate from the alleged killer, Santiago Pineda.

"The problem was they were able to get together ... because we were not able to readily identify an inmate going to an area he should not have been going to," Campbell said.

According to Campbell, the Sheriff's Department is exploring technology that would identify roaming inmates. The jail has no money to pay for such improvements, Campbell said.

"We are going to have to go out there and do some juggling and mixing and matching of hardware and computer stuff to meet the needs at Central Jail," he said.

"Right now, that's our most problematic jail for inmate movement."

The lack of resources was a common theme at the hearing.

Saying the deaths were an early warning of problems developing in California's county jails, the committee heard testimony by Los Angeles and Orange County sheriff's officials, the Office of Independent Review, the state Board of Corrections and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Romero cited a December 2002 report that found Los Angeles County to be out of compliance with California regulations that required at least hourly safety checks at Men's Central. Inspectors cited overall staffing shortages as key problems.

Romero also proposed greater state oversight of county jails, including more frequent inspections by the state Board of Corrections.

Michael Gennaco, a former federal prosecutor who heads the Office of Independent Review, a civilian oversight agency created by the Board of Supervisors in 2001 to monitor the Sheriff's Department, promised his office would ensure accountability, reform or both.

ACLU attorney Ben Wizner, who compared conditions at Men's Central Jail to rundown facilities he had seen in the Deep South, told Romero there were simply too many inmates, in too little space, with too little supervision, at the jail.

"So long as the County Jail system -- and Men's Central Jail in particular -- remains as overcrowded and understaffed as it is today, all the blue-ribbon panels, improved procedures and innovative policies in the world will not keep the inmates safe."

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