Central Jail's Overcrowding: It's Bad and Getting Worse

Times Staff Writer

Barry King has an esoteric dilemma: What should he serve for lunch--chicken or spaghetti? If he serves chicken, his guests are going to need about 12 minutes to finish their meal. If he serves spaghetti, they'll finish more quickly, maybe in nine.

Those are critical minutes because King has to multiply the difference by about 25,000--three meals a day for a captive audience of more than 8,000.

King, a Los Angeles County sheriff's captain, is the man in charge of the hopelessly overcrowded downtown Central Jail, a place where yesterday was jampacked and tomorrow will be worse.

Hub of System

The Central Jail is the hub of an eight-jail county custody system that was built for 12,312 inmates but that, as of last week, held 22,513.

The jail population is growing furiously--33% in the last year and a half alone, much of it due to sharp increases in narcotics arrests. The number of men and women in Los Angeles County's jails is now larger than the population of 46 of the nation's state prison systems.

The Central Jail is the home of most high-security inmates and the first stop for every male prisoner. For years everyone in the criminal justice system has acknowledged that there are far too many people being held there. The only question these days is: How crowded is it?

It is so crowded that a newly arrested inmate may spend half a day in a series of crowded holding cells simply waiting to be formally processed into custody.

It is so crowded that sick inmates are first sent to a room full of triple bunks because the jail hospital is full.

Some Sleep in Chapels

It is so crowded that recreation rooms are routinely used as holding facilities. So are the jail's two chapels, where inmates sleep on the pews.

It is so crowded that extra bunks are set up in the walkways of jail blocks. Their occupants are known as "freeway sleepers."

It is so crowded that on some days nearly 1,000 other prisoners are handed mattresses and told to sleep on the floors of cells that are already full, or handed blankets and told to sleep on the roof when the nighttime temperature stays above 60 degrees.

The logjam makes it impossible for the county to constantly meet all of the living-condition standards imposed by a federal judge in 1979. The judge ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit against the county that contended that long-term confinement in the jail constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

King said the jail is in "substantial compliance" with the court order, which includes requirements that prisoners receive clean clothes twice a week and 2 1/2 hours of recreation per week. However, the requirement for 15 minutes per meal is routinely cut short--even with the kitchen working 18 hours a day--and the provision that prisoners can be forced to sleep on the floor in emergencies is invoked every day.

King conceded that "on paper, theoretically, this place can't run," but insisted that it is functioning efficiently "because of the dedication of our staff," which includes 650 deputies and 400 other sheriff's employees.

Critics disagree.

"The jail is woefully out of compliance," said Stephen Yagman, an attorney who has filed several suits against the county for violating prisoners' rights and who contended in a recent suit that the county has a policy of "deliberate indifference to the rights of inmates."

This spring alone has seen a $157,000 federal court judgment against the county in favor of the family of a psychologically disturbed inmate who committed suicide in Central Jail, a lawsuit claiming racial mistreatment of prisoners at the Hall of Justice jail and allegations of prisoner harassment at the Pitchess Honor Ranch in Castaic.

Called Isolated Incidents

In each case, officials have maintained that those were isolated incidents without a pattern.

So far, the Central Jail and the county's seven smaller jails appear to have worked well enough to spare the county from an embarrassing rash of disturbances, injuries or deaths.

Incidents of inmate assault have not increased in number in recent years--they occur about twice a day--primarily because the ratio of deputies to prisoners has been maintained through additional staffing and overtime, officials said. However, there were four murders in the jail last year, compared to two in the previous three years.

To visitors, the massive Central Jail, a three-story, windowless concrete maze of modules and walkways, appears spotless and relatively free of tension. King, who is fond of proclaiming, "I love the smell of fresh paint," takes obvious pride in the appearance of the building, half of which opened in 1964 and the other half 10 years later.

Even the man who would figure to be the jail's chief adversary is impressed.

John Hagar, an attorney who for the last four years has monitored the county's compliance with the court order on behalf of the ACLU, said the quality of the jail's staff has compensated for a lack of sufficient expansion financing by the Board of Supervisors and a court system that Hagar thinks is sluggish and keeps inmates waiting in jail too long.

'The Best I've Seen'

"The efficiency of the Sheriff's Department has let everyone else (in the criminal justice system) slide," Hagar said. "(Sheriff) Sherman Block's custody people are the best I've seen.

"The (inmate) level of anger is just not that bad," said Hagar, who has been granted 24-hour access to all parts of the jail. "I've been to a lot of places that are worse. They feed the inmates very well. That helps keep them calm. . . . It's cleaner than most hotels."

Time is running out, however.

The Central Jail was built for 5,236 inmates. Its population late last week was 8,416. Under pressure from the ACLU, the county plans additions to its jail system in the coming fiscal year, but that will do little more than help the Central Jail stay even.

No matter how many tension-reducing touches the jail receives--from inmate-painted wall murals to cute mess hall inscriptions like Burglar King and Cafe C. J to the 55 old television sets that were replaced last month--breakdowns occur.

Tells of Long Wait

One inmate, in custody for violating probation on a narcotics conviction, said that when he came back from a court hearing on a recent Friday afternoon, he and about 150 other men were placed in a holding cell that he estimated was built for 20 people. The inmate, who spoke on the condition that his identity be withheld, said he stayed in that cell--waiting for his turn to be processed back into custody--from about 3 p.m. Friday until 11 a.m. Saturday. He said he was neither able to eat or use a toilet.

Both King and Hagar called those claims greatly exaggerated. But Hagar said such complaints on a lesser scale are routine and real.

"If that guy said he was in that cell six hours, I'd say, 'Yeah.' If he said he missed dinner, I'd say, 'Yeah,' " Hagar said.

Another prisoner, a businessman serving time for a financial crime, told a similar story.

When he was first admitted, he said, "it took them 16 hours to process me in, and during that time you get nothing to eat except a sandwich. . . . I went from one holding cell to another. Each time you get put into a smaller room with more people.

Sleeping on the Floor

"The first night, I came into (a former exercise room now used as a holding facility). I counted 250 beds and there must have been 700 men. I wound up sleeping on the floor. Most nights I was in Central (Jail), that happened."

The businessman said he spent 12 days at Central Jail before being transferred to a sheriff's substation jail, where he spent two weeks ("I had to share my bunk with another guy; we traded at different times of day") before finally going to the minimum-security Biscailuz Center in East Los Angeles, where he is serving his sentence.

"I did not expect it to be any picnic, but I didn't expect to be treated like less than an animal," he said. "If a person's in here more than once, it's his own damn fault."

Arguments for prison reform are often blunted by a public perception that the inmates, having been convicted of crimes, do not deserve sympathy. But unlike a state prison, most of the occupants of the Central Jail have not yet been found guilty. An estimated three-quarters of them are waiting for the charges against them to be resolved in court. Most are in custody because they cannot raise money for bail.

Maximum-Security Cases

The largest number of inmates housed at the Central Jail are classified as maximum-security cases because of the nature of their alleged or proved crimes, or because of the street gangs they belong to. The majority of the jail's facilities are segregated for groups such as gangs (one section for Bloods, another for Crips), the mentally ill, homosexuals, "soft" inmates (those especially vulnerable to attack) and "high-profile" ones (such as accused "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez).

At different times of the day, the jail's population swells substantially beyond its regular residents. All males housed in any of the county's facilities have to pass through the Central Jail every time they go to court or come back. Many bus trips begin before dawn.

Two thousand people a day are processed through the Central Jail's "court line" each morning, and 98% of them return that night. In addition, another 800 to 1,100 newly arrested people are booked there each day.

The flow is so taxing that there are periods after midnight when the processing of newly arrived prisoners has to be stopped--keeping scores of them in bureaucratic limbo--so that the more pressing task of preparing the next morning's "court line" can begin.

Years ago, the Sheriff's Department was able to use some of its other jail facilities to handle Central Jail's overflow.

Every Facility Crowded

Those days are long gone. Everything is overflowing. The old Hall of Justice Jail downtown, built for 1,086 inmates, has nearly 2,000. The maximum-security facility at the Pitchess Honor Ranch is supposed to hold 888. It has more than 1,700. Sybil Brand Institute, the women's jail, was built for 910. It has more than 2,100.

Sheriff Block has tried just about everything to get a handle on the problem.

He has reopened and expanded three closed jails. He has obtained court permission to cut five days off the sentences of less dangerous inmates. He has pleaded with police agencies in the county to cite and release as many misdemeanor offenders as possible, rather than booking them. He has urged judges to release more suspects on their own recognizance, and to more liberally employ work-release sentences to keep people out of jail during daytime hours.

None of it has stemmed the tide.

Last year, when the ACLU complained that the Central Jail's population was far above the level required for the county to comply with the 1979 federal court standards, the county agreed to cut its jail population down to a court-approved goal of 6,800 by November.

Short-Lived Success

The effort was successful, for a few months. Soon the jail population spiraled back up.

At 1 a.m. on May 6, for example, there were 8,141 inmates in the Central Jail and another 1,018 being processed in the Inmate Reception Center. There were 232 prisoners on the roof, 545 on the floor of four- or six-bunk cells, 1,942 in former recreation areas that are now equipped with bunks (although not enough to go around) and 324 in the jail's chapels.

Recently, Block declared that when the jail system's population hits 23,000, he will begin cutting another three days off the sentences of some offenders and order the immediate release of more than 1,000 inmates awaiting trial for minor crimes.

Jail population, Block said, "is becoming impossible to deal with. It has increased beyond what anybody could have rationally predicted."

About the only good news the Sheriff's Department has received occurred last week when the ACLU, with strong support from Block, pressured the county court system into undertaking a pilot program of reforms intended to cut down the amount of time inmates must spend in jail waiting for their cases to come to trial.

Two-Pronged Plan

Superior Court officials agreed to make dozens of courtrooms now reserved for civil trials available to handle criminal cases, and to try to cut down on continuances.

Howard Messing, a staff member of the federal National Institute of Corrections, which is studying the sources of overcrowding in the jails at the county's request, said he believes that much of it is due to a relatively small number of court cases that drag on for months because of continuances and eat up a disproportionate number of "jail-bed days."

For example, the study examined 83 inmates who were booked on felony charges and eventually found not guilty or had the charges dropped. Of these, only 6% were in jail 90 days or more but they accounted for 38% of all "jail-bed days" that the 83 inmates took up in the system.

"This is not a jail crowding problem; this is a court delay-management problem," Messing said.

He said the county court system should adopt tougher curbs on continuances, such as those he said are used in Detroit, where a case cannot be continued after a final pretrial conference unless the system's chief judge approves.

Pressure by Public

The problem the county faces is the same one experienced by most counties and states: Public pressure for stricter prison sentences and growing resistance to government expenditures has increased prison populations without significantly increasing accommodations.

The national rate of confinement grew from about 96 per 100,000 people in 1969 to about 210 per 100,000 today, a rise of 118%, said Robert Johnson, a professor of justice at American University in Washington who specializes in prisons. "The space to house these prisoners has maybe grown 60%," Johnson said.

According to the National Institute of Corrections, major jails in the United States--those with 100 or more beds--are now running at 105% of capacity.

In California, the situation is far worse--the population is 134% of capacity. The number of inmates in city and county jails and camps rose 92% between 1980 and 1986, from 30,045 to 57,709, while the capacity of those facilities rose only 42%, from 30,285 to 43,116.

Money to solve Los Angeles' problem is in the pipeline. The new county budget includes a $398-million plan to construct 5,408 jail beds over the next five years.

To Use Bond Money

Using some of a $96-million jail improvement bond measure approved by county voters in November, the county is building a 768-bed medium-security facility at the Pitchess Honor Ranch, expected to be ready this summer. The county also plans to construct a 300-prisoner Central Jail annex for short-time inmates and prisoners too "soft" to be exposed to the general jail population. That project is expected to be completed next spring.

In addition, using funds from the county bond measure and from previously approved state ballot measures, the county plans to construct a 2,064-bed maximum security facility at the Pitchess facility by early 1989, a 1,000-bed jail for the new Lynwood regional justice center in 1992 and a new Inmate Reception Center and an additional 1,000 beds at the Central Jail in 1992.

That may not be enough, however, according to a detailed model of population trends prepared for jail planners in 1985 by a Sheriff's Department researcher.

The projections, painstakingly based on incarceration rates and demographics forecasts, offered three scenarios. In the lowest, the population of the sheriff's eight jail facilities would rise from 14,776 in 1984 to 19,553 in 1990. In the worst-case situation, it would rise to 29,255.

'Unbelievably High'

"We chose to work with the low-end estimates because even they were unbelievably high," said Capt. John Butler, who handles jail construction planning for the Sheriff's Department.

Unfortunately, the higher estimates have proved more accurate. The low-end 1990 population estimate was exceeded sometime last year. In fact, the low-end estimate for 1995 will be exceeded by the end of this year.

Asked what the Sheriff's Department would have done without the new influx of money, Butler answered: "I don't know what we're going to do with it."

L. A. COUNTY JAIL CAPACITY June 4, 1987

Facility Capacity Population Central Jail 5,236 8,416 Hall of Justice 1,086 1,995 Biscailuz Center (East L.A.) 1,240 1,747 Pitchess Honor Ranch (Castaic) Maximum Security 888 1,714 Medium Security 680 1,839 Minimum Security 1,240 2,301 Mira Loma (Lancaster) 1,032 1,363 Sybil Brand Institute (Monterey Park) 910 2,145 Total 12,312 22,513

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°