A federal judge on Wednesday, April 19, heard a litany of longstanding problems at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, including faulty sanitation, mentally ill inmates kept chained to benches, and uses of excessive force, before conceding that the facility is “one of the most complicated places on the planet.”
During a four-hour hearing encompassing discussion of cases involving the jail, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson said he would hold a contempt hearing in June to deal with the American Civil Liberties Union’s allegations that Los Angeles County has failed to comply with court orders to address conditions at the jail system’s booking center. ACLU attorneys contend that mentally ill detainees were shackled to chairs for days at a time at the Inmate Reception Center and others were crammed together, sleeping head-to-foot on concrete floors. The request for sanctions and fines is the latest action in the long history of federal oversight of the county jail system, the largest in the nation.
Robert Dugdale, an attorney representing Los Angeles County, said efforts to reduce the jail’s population by diverting some mentally ill inmates to community-based housing would help in the ongoing “depopulation” of the facility.
“We believe we can do it and do it safely,” the attorney told the court.
However, an ACLU lawyer suggested that placing an inmate in a non-custodial setting was a decision for a judge, not the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jails. Judge Pregerson pointed out that “most judges are not going to order diversion to non-custodial facilities.” As for non-working toilets, poor sanitation and a basic lack of hygiene inside jail walls, the judge said those problems must be fixed immediately.
“It just needs to be done. Period,” he said.
Dugdale promised “this is something we will solve,” to which Pregerson responded, “that needed to be done yesterday. There’s no excuse for submitting people to unsanitary conditions. Period.”
Compounding the problems of an aged and decrepit jail, the mentally ill inmate population has skyrocketed in recent years, with half of those incarcerated similarly afflicted, said Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project.
“After almost five decades of an endless cycle of promises followed by excuses and failures and generations of class members enduring abysmal conditions, the time for talk is over,” lawyers wrote in the filing seeking a contempt hearing.
Pregerson had initially set the hearing for Wednesday, but the county filed a status report Friday providing an update on the steps it has taken in the past month to ensure compliance with the court. The judge said he would hold off on contempt proceedings until the new information could be considered. In September, the court granted a permanent injunction designed to help move mentally ill inmates and others out of the inmate reception center and into secure housing within 24 hours.
“Yet the evidence indisputably shows the IRC yet again has long delays in processing and intake of detainees, and people continue to suffer serious deprivations while in appalling conditions,” the ACLU alleged in a court filing.
Kendrick asked the court Wednesday to ensure the county would be fined for future violations, to make sure officials “keep their foot on the gas.” Pregerson said another problem at the IRC appears to involve basic data keeping for exactly how much time each inmate spent there.
“You don’t track when people come in and when they go out,” the judge said. “Without the beginning and end it’s hard for me to understand the credibility of the process.”
Explaining that “we recognize the seriousness of the problem,” Dugdale said a new “automated” system will go online next week that tracks when inmates enter the center and when they leave. The system will also keep track of how long an inmate has been on a reception center bench — and a warning will go off when that time exceeds the amount allowable by the court, Dugdale said.
The IRC, the judge said, is “one of the most complicated places on the planet.”
Pregerson also addressed a class-action suit brought against the county by the ACLU on behalf of previous or current jail inmates who allege a pattern of excessive force by deputies and a failure of superiors to discipline the officers.
“We believe that frequently there are inappropriate uses of force and supervisors are not finding violations,” ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg told the court. “Discipline when meted out is not sufficient. We believe some mandatory punishment is necessary.”
Dugdale countered that progress had been made to reduce both “head strikes” — or closed-fist punches to an inmate’s head — and the use of full- body restraint devices.
“Things are improving,” Dugdale said. “We have made a lot of progress in the past year.”
Referring to new Sheriff Robert Luna, who stresses accountability, the attorney added, “we have a new tone at the top.”