'Abysmal' conditions at L.A. jail facility prompts contempt hearing
The injunction prohibited inmates from being chained to a front bench for more than four hours and required that the center be kept sanitary
By Tony Saavedra
The Whittier Daily News
LOS ANGELES — A federal court judge ordered a contempt hearing against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for allegedly violating a court order to fix admittedly abysmal conditions at its jail intake center, marked by overflowing toilets and the chaining of mentally ill inmates to a bench for hours.
U.S. District Court Judge Dean D. Pregerson ordered a hearing in 60 days on a request by the American Civil Liberties Union to fine the Sheriff's Department for failing to abide by a preliminary injunction issued in September. A date has not yet been set.
"It's not a remedy I would do lightly, but it's one I am not shy about doing as well," Pregerson said.
The injunction prohibited inmates from being chained to a front bench at the Inmate Reception Center for more than four hours and required that the center be kept sanitary and provide adequate medical care. Responding to complaints that inmates were crammed together, sleeping head-to-foot on concrete floors, the injunction required they be moved out of the IRC into secure housing within 24 hours.
The intake center at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles processes inmates before they are transferred to other jails in the county system. Many of them are homeless or mentally ill.
"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.
In their contempt motion, ACLU attorneys argued the Sheriff's Department's intake center has a long history of mistreating inmates and being in poor condition, with improvements coming only intermittently and temporarily.
Compounding the problems inherent with an aged, 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.
"We have all been here before, too many times. More than four decades of monitoring and litigation has resulted in an endless nightmare game of whack-a-mole: conditions in (the) LA County Jails' Inmate Reception Center marginally improve; then stuff hits the fan; everything falls apart; and it's a disaster in the IRC," said the motion.
Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel for the ACLU Southern California, said in an interview Wednesday the Sheriff's Department has made improvements, but not enough.
"It's too little too late. It's only because we are holding their feet to the fire that they are doing stuff," Eliasberg said. "You still see filthy toilets and garbage on the floor."
During the first two weeks of March, the ACLU alleges, 104 inmates were chained to a bench for more than four hours, in violation of the injunction. According to the ACLU, county officials also admitted that the jail was "tethering" people with serious mental illness to gurneys in the jail hallways.
Pregerson said another problem at the IRC appears to involve basic data keeping for exactly how much time each inmate spends 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."
Attorney Robert Dugdale, representing the Sheriff's Department, told the judge that the county recognizes the problems in the Inmate Reception Center and is working to correct them.
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.
"Nobody finds it acceptable that there were 134 individuals who were 24-hour overstays in March," Dugdale said.
He said the department was dealing with staffing shortages and other roadblocks, but is making progress.
When the judge warned Dugdale that the IRC must be kept sanitary at all times, the attorney responded: "The reports we've heard, they're unacceptable. Nobody debates that. It will be done."
But Kendrick, of the ACLU National Prison Project, told the judge that the prospect of punishment is still needed to keep the county motivated.
"Unfortunately, people are continuing to suffer in the IRC," she said. "The threat of the fines in the future will coerce compliance."
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