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In jail and in danger

Violence has left 14 dead and hundreds hurt since 2000 in L.A. County lockups. Critics fault the sheriff's efforts.

December 17, 2006|Stuart Pfeifer and Robin Fields | Times Staff Writers

On a Tuesday in October 2003, Ki Hong entered Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles to serve a five-day sentence for soliciting a prostitute.

He didn't survive two hours.

Three members of a Korean gang instantly spotted Hong, 34, who authorities allege was a member of a rival gang. The trio had broad freedom to roam the jail because sheriff's deputies had given them jobs as inmate workers -- jobs for which they, awaiting trial on murder charges, should have been ineligible.

They let themselves into Hong's dormitory using a guard's control button. Then they stabbed Hong repeatedly, strangled him with bed linen and hid his body in a trash bin.

Since 2000, 14 inmates have been slain in jails run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, including four this year. Hundreds more have been injured in jail violence.

Taxpayers, who pay more than $500 million a year to operate the jails, paid an additional $6 million since 2004 to compensate inmates and their survivors for errors, negligence and brutality. In addition, a tentative $2.8-million settlement is awaiting county approval.

A Times review found that:

* The Sheriff's Department has failed to protect vulnerable inmates from predators, despite repeated calls for action by jail experts. Last year, deputies placed Chadwick Cochran, a low-level offender with a long history of mental illness, in an unsupervised holding cell with violent gang members. They punched and stomped him to death.

* The department has had increasing difficulty maintaining order at its eight jail facilities. More than 30 major disturbances involving large numbers of inmates erupted this year. Riots left two dead and at least 100 injured. After widespread rioting in 2000, the violence subsided briefly. But the number of disturbances has risen from 47 in 2001 to 112 this year, records show.

* Disciplinary action against sheriff's employees whose lapses contributed to inmate deaths or injuries is often softened or rescinded on appeal. In one case in 2003, a deputy was suspended five days for failing to notice that two inmates, drunk on jail-brewed alcohol, had beaten their mentally ill cellmate to death. A supervisor overturned the suspension over the objections of the department's internal affairs monitor.

The Hong case cost the county $800,000 in legal claims and prompted sanctions against a dozen jail employees. Yet similar failures played a role in at least seven inmate deaths over the next two years.

In the most notorious case, an inmate wandered unescorted through Men's Central Jail for several hours, finally finding a witness who had testified against him in a murder case and strangling him in his cell.

Sheriff Lee Baca says his department has done its best to contain an ever-more-explosive inmate population.

"It's remarkable there's not more violence in the context of the county jail demographics," he said in an interview. "It could be 10 to 100 times worse if it wasn't for the managers and deputies in the Los Angeles County Jail. We'll never be singled out for the murders we have prevented."

Baca said his department has taken steps to reduce jail violence in recent months. A centralized team now screens arriving inmates to separate the vulnerable from the violent. Many Latino gang members are held apart from the general population to avoid clashes with outnumbered black inmates.

The sheriff also said his department has inadequate resources to staff the jails properly and renovate unsafe facilities.

Civil rights attorney Hermez Moreno, who represented the family of the slain witness, 20-year-old Raul Tinajero, said the department's shortcomings came down to management, not money.

Tinajero's killer was allowed out of his cell by pretending to have a court appearance. The deputy responsible for checking his ID number against the list of inmates with court appearances apparently did not do so.

The $1.25 million paid earlier this year to settle a lawsuit filed by Tinajero's relatives was the second-largest payout for an inmate death in county history.

"How much money would it have taken for one guy to look at the wristband of the guy who killed Tinajero?" Moreno said. "The answer is no amount of money. The answer is accountability and appropriate training."

Comparing jails

In the Los Angeles County Jail system -- the nation's largest -- about 3,300 uniformed employees watch over an inmate population that averages more than 18,000.

The New York City Department of Correction, which oversees about 5,000 fewer inmates, has three times as many uniformed guards.

At least one in five Los Angeles County inmates is a gang member. Nearly 90% are awaiting trial on felony charges.

Almost two-thirds of the jail killings since 2000 have taken place in Men's Central Jail, an aging 4,800-bed behemoth just north of Union Station.

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