December 7, 2005
Supervisors Criticize Jail Safety
Board members accuse Sheriff Lee Baca of failing to protect inmates and cite the high cost of legal settlements related to the violence.
By Stuart Pfeifer and Richard Winton, Times Staff Writers
County supervisors on Tuesday accused Sheriff Lee Baca of ignoring recommendations to improve inmate safety at county jails and said the continued violence there is costing the county millions of dollars in legal settlements.
The supervisors' unusually confrontational session with top jail officials came the day they discussed settling lawsuits filed by families of two of the eight inmates who have been killed in the jails over the last two years.
The county has agreed to pay at least $1.7 million to family members of those two victims. County officials, however, acknowledged that the total payout for the eight deaths would be substantially higher because of other settlements, including some currently being negotiated. They did not disclose the total amount.
The supervisors said they were particularly incensed because Baca ignored reform recommendations made last year after the first spate of killings — including one committed by an inmate who walked through the jail freely to kill a witness.
Sheriff's officials said Tuesday they had not carried out all of the reforms proposed by Merrick Bobb, the special monitor who advises county supervisors on Sheriff's Department matters. Those suggestions included segregating the most violent inmates from the rest of the jail population.
Baca moved to separate gang members from the rest of the jail population only after an inmate whom deputies suspected of being mentally ill was killed last month by fellow inmates while they were being held together in an unsupervised room of the jail.
"If we would have implemented all of the recommendations, it is very clear that this person would not have died," Supervisor Gloria Molina said. "I don't want to keep paying out taxpayer dollars for things that could have been prevented."
Top sheriff's officials defended the department's handling of the jails and said they were doing the best they could while understaffed and dealing with antiquated jail facilities and an increasingly violent inmate population.
"You're telling us that we have to watch every single inmate at every moment of the day to prevent something like that. I would love to be able to do that. Sheriff Baca would love to prevent any type of violence in the jail," Undersheriff Larry Waldie said.
"The circumstances just don't allow that, and that's incredibly unfortunate for the individual that has to suffer the death," Waldie added.
His explanation met with a sharp rebuke from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
"It's not good enough, from my point of view, to say 'Stuff happens.' That's basically the answer you gave: 'People are going to get murdered in the jails…. We do our best,' " Yaroslavsky said.
"We're talking about human beings," he added, "whether they're criminals or suspects being held — whatever they are. You lose them and it's over. You don't have a second chance."
Yaroslavsky and other supervisors said they were dismayed that they were still grappling with the issue of violence in the jails nearly two years after a string of five jailhouse killings. After those killings, Baca promised reforms and Bobb issued his report calling for segregation of violent inmates.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich said he could not understand why the sheriff was unable to provide adequate supervision of inmates so they couldn't kill each other.
"Management's failure to exercise that supervision is now going to cost taxpayers millions of dollars in litigation and lawsuits that we will have to pay," he said.
The issue of jail violence resurfaced last month with the case of 35-year-old Chadwick Shane Cochran. He was killed Nov. 16 in the Men's Central Jail by two inmates who beat and stomped on his head for 10 to 15 minutes while he and the other prisoners were locked in a room with no deputy watching them. Deputies could not see into the room because three windows were covered with metal sheeting.
Deputies who investigated his killing said the inmates were angry at Cochran because he had cut in line for dinner that night. Cochran, accused of illegal firearm possession, was originally housed in the downtown Twin Towers mental health facility.
Waldie said Cochran was transferred to the main jail population after he did not cooperate with mental health staff attempting to evaluate him.
In the aftermath of the killing, the department has vowed to no longer house inmates in the room where Cochran was killed. Prisoners were kept in the room temporarily after using the jail exercise yard and were expected to be returned to their cells.