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Op-Ed

Sheriff Baca: We are fixing the jails

A report on jail violence ignores the changes we've made at county facilities.

September 14, 2012|By Lee Baca
(Los Angeles Times )

Last week, the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence issued a report sharply critical of my department with regard to violence at the Los Angeles County Jail. But the report neglected to mention a number of important initiatives my management team and I have put into place since allegations of problems at the jails surfaced. These measures have resulted in a record low use of force in county jails in recent months.

Here are just some of the initiatives investigators neglected to mention in their report to the jail commission on Friday.

When the American Civil Liberties Union first raised allegations of excessive force being used by deputies, I launched a full-scale investigation into each and every one. Because allegations and anecdotes are not the same as facts, it was important to discover what was true, and I think that when these investigations are completed, which I believe will be soon, the public will be surprised by the factual findings.

But I have not waited for the results of that investigation to take action to improve the jails. After I heard about the excessive force allegations, one of my first steps was to meet with more than 100 inmates and listen to their concerns. The captain of Central Jail, along with key managers and deputies, was present for this town hall-style meeting. At the meeting, inmates were encouraged to express their concerns about excessive use of force, mistreatment and disrespect, and they were assured there would be no reprisals for their remarks.

What we heard primarily were complaints about small things: soap, shower time, family visits, telephone usage, temperature, toothbrushes. Inmates also raised concerns about medical needs and about what precipitates the use of force.

The inmates explained that a key code of conduct within the jails involves respect. If an inmate is not respectful to other inmates, a violent consequence can be expected. This helps explain why a third of all deputy force used in the jails involves breaking up fights between inmates. Disrespectful conduct by deputies has also led to the use of force, and that is something we can't tolerate. Our core values prohibit disrespectful behavior toward all people.

My jail managers and I also met with 100 deputies who have used force in their dealings with inmates. In small groups, each deputy explained why he or she resorted to force and made suggestions for preventing such incidents in the future. One practice cited as sometimes leading to the use of force on the part of deputies was taking groups of high-risk inmates out of their cells so a nurse could issue pills in a hallway. I have changed that practice. Inmates now remain in their cells during pill call, which has solved one of the problems that sometimes led to the use of force.

Another practice we have changed after speaking with jail personnel is that of allowing deputies without training in mental health issues to escort declassified mental health inmates back to the old Central Jail. In the past, that has sometimes led to force being used on inmates who resisted walking and cooperating. I have issued an order that only deputies trained in handling mentally ill inmates may be assigned to escort former patients to their new jail assignments.

To expand dialogue between inmates and deputies, I have formed a Commanders Management Task Force. And to make sure deputies are ready to serve in the jails, we have increased custody training for new deputies from two to four weeks. I have also written and implemented a force prevention policy, and have instituted new and improved training for all Central Jail deputies on using force. This training soon will be expanded to all jails.

Finally, I have assigned 19 additional sergeants to Central Jail, and I have directed all jail captains to hold weekly town hall meetings with inmates to keep abreast of new problems and their solutions.

These new efforts come on top of years of work to improve our jails. For example, in the belief that people who are incarcerated need to learn how to live a positive life and expand their potential as human beings, our jails now offer a variety of self-improvement classes to more than 6,000 inmates.

As the county's elected sheriff, I will take responsibility for any proven allegations involving excessive force in the jails. We are still investigating whether these allegations are valid. But I don't need proof to seize the opportunity for instituting holistic reforms of our jail culture that will improve life for deputies, inmates, professional staff, managers and the hundreds of volunteers who help us on a daily basis. I am determined to make our jail system the least violent in the nation.

Lee Baca has been sheriff of Los Angeles County since 1998.

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