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ACLU calls conditions in L.A. County Men's Central Jail 'medieval'

April 15, 2009|Richard Winton and Ruben Vives

Civil rights advocates Tuesday called on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Lee Baca to close the Men's Central Jail, saying nightmarish conditions and overcrowding undermine the inmates' mental health.

"The conditions are medieval and drive men mad," said Melinda Bird, senior legal counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "The only way to fix Men's Central Jail is to close it."

The ACLU held a news conference Tuesday to release a 50-page report critical of conditions at the downtown L.A. jail. It stated that the Sheriff's Department often fails to identify inmates who suffer from mental illness. As a result, the poor jail conditions exacerbate their problems.

The report was written by Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who specializes in jails. He based his findings on a visit to the men's jail last year, three decades after he first inspected the county jail as an expert witness for the ACLU.

According to Kupers' report, Men's Central Jail is dark and dank with crowded rows of mostly windowless cells, where rehabilitation programs are scarce or nonexistent and treatment is limited to medication. Those suffering from mental illness tend to remain in their cells all day and are often the ones abused by fellow inmates, the report states.

Kupers said jailers working under the current conditions have become "increasingly insensitive to prisoner concerns."

"Excessive force and other abuses become more frequent occurrences," Kupers said.

Although Kupers acknowledged that the sheriff has made some improvements since his visit, he said serious problems persist. For example, he said, the men's jail is so overcrowded that it falls well short of the space standard for inmates set by the American Correctional Assn., which calls for 35 square feet of unencumbered space per inmate. The sheer volume of inmates -- about 13,000 a month -- makes it impossible to screen for mental illness in all inmates, Kupers said. He said jail officials have overlooked inmates' mental health disorders because there is not enough space to house them in nearby Twin Towers, the facility designated for inmates with mental health issues.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Baca has long advocated replacing the men's jail with a modern facility. Whitmore, however, said the ACLU report "significantly overstates" the problems and fails to consider many of the improvements made during the last few years.

Earlier this year, Baca suggested that he might shutter the aging jail as a way to close a projected budget shortfall.

Built in 1963, the Men's Central Jail costs about $50 million a year to operate and houses about 6,700 of the 18,000 inmates in the county jail system.

In response to the ACLU report, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he believes the jails need to be updated.

"The jails are very old. They need to either be replaced, which is very expensive, or refurbished" to avoid lawsuits, he said

Yaroslavsky said the county has not had a jail bond in more than two decades.

"And I don't think we're going to get it passed currently, so we have to look at other ways of funding it," including federal stimulus money, he said.

During the news conference, ACLU officials also called for an independent investigation into last month's suicide of a 22-year-old inmate who hanged himself while in solitary confinement at the Men's Central Jail.

According to the ACLU, at least one inmate saw a noose in John Horton's cell and heard deputies joke that he was crazy. Horton's death is the subject of an internal Sheriff's Department investigation.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report.

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