A federal judge Friday issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department from housing more than 20 inmates in temporary holding rooms at the downtown Inmate Reception Center.
U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson's ruling came in response to a request by the American Civil Liberties Union, which accused the Sheriff's Department of holding as many as 50 inmates in cramped cells without beds, or enough room to lie down, for days at a time. Pregerson also ordered the department to keep inmates in those holding rooms -- which are less than 200 square feet -- for no more than 24 hours before transferring them to permanent housing.
"Inmates, particularly pretrial detainees who are imbued with presumption of innocence, deserve better than to be housed in a system which has defaulted to the lowest permissible standard of care," the judge said.
The Sheriff's Department said it increased the population at the Inmate Reception Center after it reduced capacity at the nearby Men's Central Jail because of similar concerns about overcrowding at that jail. The Inmate Reception Center is where inmates are processed before they're transferred to any of seven other county jail facilities.
"It's important to note that we have been striving to do exactly what the judge is requesting prior to this restraining order," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.
"Having said that, we share the judge's concern. We always appreciate input because in the Sheriff's Department, we are working every day to do better."
Pregerson's ruling addresses the latest in a series of concerns about the Sheriff's Department's management of the nation's largest jail system, which has a daily average of about 18,000 inmates.
In May, the judge voiced concern about conditions at Men's Central Jail. Many inmates there spent the entire day locked in cells, where they ate, slept and rarely left their bunks. He called conditions at the facility "inconsistent with basic human values." The department has also had to deal with a long history of racially motivated violence, including rioting earlier this year that left two inmates dead and dozens injured.
In his ruling, Pregerson noted that the holding cells at the reception center are about 186 square feet, meaning that 30 inmates would have 6 square feet each. The judge scheduled a Dec. 11 hearing to consider a permanent order on the matter.
An attorney for the ACLU of Southern California applauded the judge's ruling.
"He sent a message to the county and to the sheriff that they can't play a shell game with these detainees, that they can't improve conditions in one facility and create shocking, unthinkable conditions in another," said Melinda Bird, senior counsel for the ACLU of Southern California. "These men had to take turns sitting down.... It was really inhumane and shocking."
Pregerson noted that the Sheriff's Department has the gargantuan task of housing nearly 20,000 inmates in eight jail facilities, numerous patrol stations and courthouse holding cells.
He applauded sheriff's employees "who are daily faced with the daunting task of managing this overburdened system."