The inmate reception center for the L.A. County jail system is holding people in “abysmal conditions of confinement” and violating decades of court orders calling for improvements, according to an emergency court filing Thursday, Sept. 8, by the ACLU and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.
Attorneys from the ACLU who visited the center in downtown Los Angeles described people with serious mental illness chained to chairs for days at a time, where they sleep sitting up; dozens of inmates crammed together, sleeping head-to-foot on the concrete floor; and detainees defecating in trash cans and urinating on the floor or in empty food containers in shared spaces, according to the filing in federal court.
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department runs the jail system. Sheriff’s Deputy Veronica Fantom said the department “cannot comment due to pending litigation.”
Conditions at L.A. County jails, the largest jail system in the nation, have been the subject of court oversight since 1978, when a federal court judge ruled in the ACLU SoCal case Rutherford v. Pitchess, finding numerous conditions that violate the constitutional rights of people incarcerated.
“The L.A. County Jail system is a national disgrace,” Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said in a statement. “For almost 50 years, the jail has been under court oversight to provide the most basic minimum standards of sanitation, health care and human decency to people detained there. Enough is enough.”
The 48-page emergency filing asks the court to order the county to limit custody at the inmate reception center to 24 hours at most and to improve conditions so the facility meets minimum standards. But advocates and community groups have argued that the real solution requires county investment in alternatives to incarceration.
“The county supervisors have long touted a ‘Care First, Jails Last’ approach, but have failed to make any meaningful investments in community-based alternatives to incarceration,” said Melissa Camacho-Cheung, senior staff attorney at the ACLU SoCal. “We know what works for our neighbors and family members who are suffering: community-based programming that provides people with case management, stable housing, medical and mental health care, and support.”
The filing contends the ACLU has found unhygienic conditions, including floors littered with trash, overflowing sinks and toilets, no access to showers or clean clothes for days, and lack of adequate access to drinking water and food at the center. The civil rights group also claims the facility is negligent in providing adequate health care, including failure to provide people with serious mental illness or chronic medical conditions their medications, and fails to provide care to people dangerously detoxing from drugs and alcohol.
Law enforcement agencies arrest and take people to the reception center, where they are meant to get booked and transferred to another facility within 24 hours. Many of the people detained there are unhoused, have serious mental illnesses, or both, according to the ACLU.
“L.A. County’s horrific treatment of people in the jails is egregious but sadly comes as no surprise,” said Ambrose Brooks S., coordinator of the JusticeLA Coalition. “As we’ve seen time and time again, incarcerating people is never the answer to people experiencing houselessness, poverty, or unmet mental health needs.”