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The Invisible Man

June 22, 2004

Gustavo Ortega died an invisible man, overlooked by the Los Angeles County jail system well before it released him, then lost him in the lobby of the downtown jail.

The insulin-dependent diabetic, in custody a month, underwent amputation of part of his right foot just before he was freed. As staff writer Sue Fox reported in Sunday's Times, he could hardly walk and made it only as far as a lobby bench, where he stayed for three days, without meals or medicine. Finally noticed and taken to a hospital, Ortega died of coronary artery disease, with diabetes, chronic renal failure and hypertension listed as contributing causes.

The Sheriff's Department, which runs the jail, regrets the tragedy. Of course. But the department argues that jailers followed procedure in giving Ortega a pair of crutches and releasing him at 2 a.m. The lobby is a 24-hour bus station of a building that admits and releases as many as 800 people a day. And a released inmate, even one still inside the crowded, noisy lobby, is not -- technically -- the county's responsibility anymore.

In fact, this is one long story of jailers who followed procedures instead of doing their jobs.

The jail system rendered Ortega invisible well before the day it freed him to languish in its lobby. A required screening when he was admitted -- on suspicion of drinking and other misdemeanors -- failed to turn up mental health problems despite what his family says is a history of disorientation and memory lapses so severe he couldn't hold a job or remember his own phone number.

In the following weeks, his diabetes caused Ortega's feet to swell. He was sent to the jail ward of County-USC Medical Center, where his foot was partially amputated. His minor offenses ultimately earned him one day in jail, which he had long since served by the time he was sentenced. Meanwhile, Sheriff Lee Baca has been ordering early releases for hundreds of inmates arrested for more serious crimes, pleading severe budget cuts.

Ortega's death is not the jails' only horror story, even if it is perhaps the most pathetic one. Five inmates have been killed in county jails since October, including a witness allegedly slain by an inmate he testified against.

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has created a task force to investigate the deaths and propose reforms. Michael Gennaco, who heads a civilian watchdog agency overseeing Sheriff's Department operations, has assigned an attorney to set up office inside the jail, monitor security and investigate the deaths. Gustavo Ortega's should be among them.

Like so many services run by the cash-strapped county, the jail system is overcrowded and underfunded. That undoubtedly contributes to the jail's problems. It does not excuse them.

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