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Los Angeles County sheriff may shut part of Men's Central Jail

Sheriff Lee Baca is considering closing the old section of the problem-plagued downtown lockup. The 1,800 inmates affected would probably go to the facility in Lynwood that now houses women.

March 21, 2012|By Jack Leonard and Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • Men's Central Jail has long rows of cramped cells, rather than the more modern circular configuration that makes controlling inmates, supervising jailers and protecting employees significantly easier.
Men's Central Jail has long rows of cramped cells, rather than the… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Facing a federal investigation into allegations of brutality in his jails, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is considering a bold proposal to shutter a portion of the department's most troubled lockup that has been plagued by inmate killings, excessive force by guards and poor supervision.

The plan would shift about 1,800 inmates, including many of the county's most violent criminals, from the old section of Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, a sheriff's jail commander said. The inmates would probably be moved to a newer facility in Lynwood that currently houses female inmates.

If adopted, the plan would bring significant changes to the way the nation's largest jail system is run.

It would solve what has long been a major problem for the department: having the most violent inmates housed in an antiquated facility. Men's Central is designed with long rows of cramped cells, rather than the more modern circular configuration that makes controlling inmates, supervising jailers and protecting employees significantly easier.

But closing the section of Men's Central could have a significant side effect: reducing the number of total inmates the system can handle.

The Sheriff's Department already releases some inmates early because of a lack of funding and is expected to receive thousands of new inmates under a plan that is sending offenders who previously landed in state prison to county jails. Cmdr. Jim Hellmold said it's possible that the reduced capacity that could come with closing much of Men's Central would require more low-risk inmates to be released on electronic monitoring.

The plan would also mark a shift in thinking by Baca, who has up to now talked about closing Men's Central if the county gives him the money to build a new jail.

Hellmold, who is part of a sheriff's task force reforming the jails, said Baca has ordered his staff to examine the logistics of clearing out Men's Central's "old side" but has not yet committed to any specific plan.

Baca's spokesman, Steve Whitmore, said the sheriff intends to discuss the plan with members of the county Board of Supervisors before unveiling it publicly, perhaps in several weeks. Whitmore said sheriff's officials hope any proposal they adopt will not result in more early releases.

With about 4,500 inmates, Men's Central is touted by the Sheriff's Department as the largest single jail facility in the world.

"Nightmarish to manage" is how the Board of Supervisors' special counsel on law enforcement issues, Merrick Bobb, described the jail several years ago in a confidential report after a series of inmate-on-inmate killings in 2003 and 2004. He warned of the possibility of an inmate takeover that "would be nearly impossible to quell without the spilling of so much blood as to be morally, pragmatically, and politically indefensible."

The plan that sheriff's officials are now considering involves closing the jail's older wing, which was built in 1963. The area has been the scene of some of the most frequent clashes between deputies and inmates.

The facility's third floor — called the 3000 floor — houses some of the county's most dangerous inmates, including killers and notorious gang leaders. Many face the possibility of a lifetime in prison and are known to fashion makeshift knives from toothbrushes and sharp spears from ripped magazines to attack fellow inmates or guards.

The Times reported last year that sheriff's managers assigned some of their least experienced deputies to the third floor. While deputies at Men's Central had 31 months of experience on average, those assigned to 3000 had only 20 months, according to 2009 sheriff's memos. Some deputies were assigned to 3000 as rookies, one report said.

The 3000 floor saw more force incidents — 437 — than any other in Men's Central from 2006 through 2010, department records show. The third floor drew public scrutiny in 2010 when The Times reported that a fight broke out at a department Christmas party between a group of deputies assigned to 3000 and other jailers. After the brawl, sheriff's officials said deputies on the third floor had formed an aggressive clique whose members flashed gang-like three-finger hand signs.

Robert Olmsted, a retired sheriff's commander who warned about deputy cliques and inmate abuse before he left the department in 2010, said the Lynwood jail's design would make it easier for deputies to keep a close watch on high-security inmates. The jail's cells were built around a security booth, giving deputies inside a good view of each cell. By contrast, deputies assigned to Men's Central have to walk long rows to see what inmates are doing in their cells.

"It doesn't sound like a bad idea, but the big question is how much bed space are you going to lose?" Olmsted said.

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