After four recent inmate deaths, protesters call for changes in L.A. county jails

Frustration over conditions in the county’s jails spilled over Friday morning as protesters temporarily shut down part of a street leading to the main jail complex near downtown Los Angeles, prompting a brief confrontation with police.

Fueling the demonstrators’ concerns were the deaths of four inmates in nine days this month, all stemming from incidents at jails run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

A 48-year-old inmate at Twin Towers Correctional Facility died of suicide by “hanging, strangulation” late Thursday, according to a document obtained by The Times. The man had been on life support at a hospital since Feb. 24, when he was found lying face-down on a bunk with a shirt around his head, according to the document written by Deputy G. Matthews.

Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida confirmed that there were four deaths including a suicide this month, but she declined to provide specific information, citing ongoing investigations.

She said seven inmates have died this year in the county’s jail system, the nation’s largest. Last year there were 20 inmate deaths, and in 2015, there were 21, she said.

But demonstrators on Friday demanded more answers.

“Any death in the jails should raise a lot of questions, but because of the lack of transparency, it's hard to know what happened to these people,” said Esther Lim, jails project director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

About 50 protesters — many affiliated with Dignity and Power Now, a group that advocates for accountability in the jails and better conditions for inmates, said they wanted the newly created Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission to be granted subpoena power to obtain documents and call witnesses to testify about jail conditions. Currently, the commission is only able to make recommendations — but can’t enforce changes — on how the Sheriff’s Department should operate.

Some protesters carried signs reading “Expose the 300 Problematic Deputies,” a reference to a secret list of officers found by internal investigators to have committed misconduct. Sheriff Jim McDonnell has been fighting in court with the union representing deputies over his attempt to hand the list to prosecutors so the names can be added to an internal database that tracks officers whose testimony could become problematic.

There were no arrests at Friday’s protest.

According to the documents obtained by The Times, a 72-year-old inmate awaiting trial at Men’s Central Jail died Sunday after suffering a head injury. Hours after he was treated for the a head wound, his body was found in a wheelchair, where he apparently died while he was waiting to be taken to a hospital, according to the report by Deputy Sheriff Generalist J. Talmadge.

Lt. David Smith, of the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner, said no cause of death had been determined. He said the inmate’s family had not been notified as of Friday afternoon.

Another document detailed the death of a 64-year-old man who was “found unresponsive in his cell” at Twin Towers Correctional Facility on March 1. His autopsy results are still in “deferred” status, said Lt. Kelly Yagerlener of the coroner’s office. And a 43-year-old inmate at the North County Correctional Facility died on March 3, also of unknown causes, according to another document.

In a statement, the Sheriff’s Department said that inmate suicides are “tragic and unacceptable” and that the agency has made improvements in recent years to keep its more than 16,000 inmates safe. Those include safety checks to high-risk inmates every 15 minutes, de-escalation training for jail staff and a more thorough review process to identify and fix problems stemming from suicides and other incidents.

Standing with protesters on Friday, Helen Jones, 51, held up what she said were the strips of fabric found with her son’s body when he died at Men’s Central Jail in 2009.

“I had to do my own investigation,” said the mother of 22-year-old John Thomas Horton III. She said officials suggested that her son killed himself, but she showed photos of his bloodied corpse, concluding he was bludgeoned to death while awaiting trial on what she said was a “bogus” charge.

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.

Smith, of the coroner’s office, said Friday that eight years after Horton’s death, the incident is listed as a “hanging,” but a mode of death — such as suicide or homicide — has not yet been determined.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

maya.lau@latimes.com

Twitter: @mayalau

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