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Night Greets the Newly Freed

The scene can be eerie as dozens, sometimes even 100, L.A. County inmates are released onto darkened streets in the wee hours.

September 13, 2004|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

As the hour crept toward midnight, the street life outside the county jails in downtown Los Angeles grew rowdy.

A teenage boy, reclining on top of a garbage can like it was a Barcalounger, leered at a woman in a pink cardigan and drawled, "How handsome is the guy you're waiting for?"

The woman tugged the sweater tightly around her shoulders and fixed her gaze on the Inmate Reception Center door. She was waiting for her son.

An inmate, freshly released, lurched across the sidewalk, shouting: "The FBI, they're the ones I hate. But the Mafia, I love the Mafia. The Mafia's on my side."

"Have I gotten so prissy?" whispered the woman. "I guess I'm pretty sheltered. I think this is pretty scary."

Fear and anger, relief and jubilation -- it's all on naked display on Bauchet Street, the scene of one of the city's oddest nightly dramas.

Almost 10,000 inmates are locked in the Men's Central Jail and the Twin Towers complex on the dead-end block. Los Angeles County releases inmates 24 hours a day and each night dozens of them, sometimes 100 or more, stream out the jailhouse doors and onto the city's darkened streets.

Friends and family wait for some. But many have no money and no way to get home -- if they even have a home. For those, a free shuttle will ferry them to the homeless shelters and drab hotels of skid row.

Earlier this year, an inmate named Gustavo Ortega was released in the middle of the night. An insulin-dependent diabetic whose right foot had just been amputated, Ortega never made it home. Three days later, he was found barely alive in the jail's reception center and died in the hospital. His family did not know he had been released.

The tragedy focused attention on nighttime releases, but Sheriff Lee Baca, who oversees the county jails, says he is legally bound to release inmates once their term is up -- even if that means the middle of the night.

In 2001, the county agreed to pay $27 million to settle several class-action lawsuits that accused the county of routinely holding inmates beyond their release dates.

"Now I'm very conservative," Baca said. "I say, get them out as soon as the law says they should be out. I don't care if it's 1 a.m. or 1 in the afternoon."

Los Angeles is not alone. Other urban jails follow similar procedures. Orange County regularly frees inmates at 2 or 3 a.m. In Houston, prisoners leave the Harris County jail around the clock. At New York City's Rikers Island complex, inmates are released en masse at 5 a.m. and transported to a subway stop in Queens.

The Los Angeles jails are so jammed that it can take eight or more hours to funnel inmates through the jailhouse and onto the streets. Paperwork must be processed, fingerprints scanned, crime databases searched, clothing returned. With hundreds of inmates slated for release each day, some don't make it out until the wee hours.

The delays have turned Bauchet Street into an unusual open-air waiting room, where people like Tennille Hempen, a 27-year-old woman from Long Beach, shiver outside for hours.

On a recent night, she waited more than 10 hours for her best friend to be released.

A few feet away, the lbarra family -- four women who piled into a car and drove from Lancaster to wait for an inmate -- wrapped themselves in a blanket and wobbled up and down the street to keep warm.

"It's like an airport, except worse," Hempen said. "At least they have an arrival schedule. Here, you just stand and wait."

The nighttime releases have spawned a cottage industry of taxi drivers and bail bondsmen who mingle in the dark alongside waiting families.

"This is the safest place in Los Angeles," proclaimed Nelson Elias Recalde, a roly-poly cabbie who says he spends most of his working nights trolling for fares outside the jails. "You think the guys who just got out want to go back? Over here, people have no drugs, no weapons. They're like angels."

Sensing an opportunity, Recalde sidled up to Joselyn lbarra and tried to persuade her to leave so that he could drive her jailed brother home. "Right now, you could be home watching TV!" he said.

"I'd rather wait for my brother," lbarra replied.

"A taxi to Lancaster is $164," added her mother, Elsa lbarra. "It's too much money."

So they waited.

Diversions are few on Bauchet Street. At night, the vendors who sell beef burritos and chilled sodas go home. The pay phones at the corner fall silent.

There are scarcely any sheriff's deputies to be seen.

It's usually quiet, except for the steady hum of the sickly yellow lights outside the Inmate Reception Center, where prisoners are brought in and let go. There's a waiting room on the second floor, but many families prefer to stay outside so they don't miss inmates leaving. They stand in knots, sit on a concrete wall and pace the sidewalk marked by splotches of gum and littered with crumpled cigarette packs.

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