ACLU urges action on jail conditions

The agency asks a judge to force the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to obey a court order aimed at easing crowding.
By Stuart Pfeifer
Times Staff Writer

April 25, 2007

The ACLU of Southern California asked a federal judge Tuesday to hold the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in contempt for failing to adhere to a court order to improve conditions at a jail where some prisoners spend days in overcrowded rooms without blankets or regular meals.

The request comes five months after U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson ordered the department to hold inmates no longer than 24 hours at the Inmate Reception Center, the downtown hub through which they are processed into the nation’s largest local jail system.

Conditions have grown worse since the department, acting on orders from the county Board of Supervisors, stopped using overtime to maintain jail staffing, according to a brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The average population in the reception center grew from 740 in January to 1,240 in March, with dozens of prisoners held longer than the one-day limit Pregerson set, according to the ACLU.

Inmates at the reception center are housed in large holding rooms without beds, blankets, toiletries or adequate toilet facilities, the ACLU alleged. Inmates say the rooms are so crowded that they don’t have space to lie down, and they often fight over bags of sandwiches tossed to them by deputies.

The ACLU asked Pregerson to consider testimony from several former inmates who described conditions as intolerable. The vast majority of prisoners in Los Angeles County jails are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of crimes.

“Nothing — not even my experience with continued, extensive combat in Vietnam — could have prepared me for the negative experiences that I endured during that month in the appalling L.A. jails,” former inmate John Finn said.

If Pregerson finds the Sheriff’s Department in contempt, he can impose fines or order it to improve conditions. The ACLU requested that the judge order the county to hire consultants to review medical and mental health services in the jail, study services at the reception center, and monitor the sheriff’s budget to make sure enough money is allocated to provide inmates with reasonable treatment.

A sheriff’s spokesman said the department was taking steps to reduce the time inmates spend in holding rooms before they are blankigned cells in other jail facilities.

“We as always share the concerns of the judge and the ACLU, and every day are working to make it better,” sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said. “As we bring on more deputies, more beds will be available.”

ACLU attorney Melinda Bird said the organization acted after receiving a number of complaints from inmates.

“It breaks your heart to talk to these guys. We walk down the hallways … and there are men pounding on glblank doors begging for food and saying ‘I’m freezing cold!’ And the deputies ignore them,” Bird said.

Former inmate Albert Smith said he was in a holding cell with about 100 prisoners in March when deputies handed a bag of sandwiches and drinks to two inmates, rather than pblanking them out to people individually.

Two gang members distributed the sandwiches to their friends and let others go hungry, Smith said. An older inmate complained and was then beaten by the gang members, he said.

“Deputies did nothing to intervene or help him; they just let it escalate,” Smith said in a declaration filed with the court.

*

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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