Full-time burglar and narcotics dealer Stephen Berkley can remember the good old days, way back in 1963, when the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail first opened and a crook could almost see his reflection in cement floors so new that they shined.
"Look at these scuff marks," said Berkley, 49. "Look at all these people. This place sure ain't what it used to be."
A 1-million-square-foot hunk of concrete sandwiched between the paved banks of the Los Angeles River and the rusting warehouses of lower Chinatown, the jail, or "CJ" as it is known, is a metaphor for the plight of criminal justice in Los Angeles.
Aging and overcrowded, it and other county jail facilities also are the damper on the local criminal justice system.
While Los Angeles County's jail system is the largest in the nation, there simply is not enough space. Overcrowding has forced judges, prosecutors and police officers to juggle priorities that largely determine who should go to jail and how long they should remain.
Built for no more than 5,276 inmates, the Men's Central Jail today houses nearly 6,800. Inmates line up for meals, showers and sick call.
"Take it now . . . take it now," a jail nurse drones as she hands Tylenol capsules and paper cups of water to one cold-suffering inmate after another. "Take it now."
Like the men they guard, deputies assigned to the jail have few kind words to say about conditions that were once state-of-the-art.
"A jail, in my opinion, should sparkle," said Sheriff's Capt. Lee Davenport, who runs the jail's Inmate Reception Center. "We don't sparkle. Just keeping our heads above water is a major task."
It is through the conveyor-like reception center that all male inmates enter incarceration (females are processed in East Los Angeles at the women's Sybil Brand Institute).
A sign near the entrance advises officers to "Leave all knives, saps and ammo with control deputy." As the two steel doors open and clang shut, incoming arrestees find seats on wooden benches until called by the next available filing clerk.
Separated by a glass window, a clerk asks each arrestee 52 questions, typing the answers into a computer--his name, address, birth date, color of eyes, observable physical oddities, whether he has venereal disease. . . .
Those picked up on minor charges usually are released within minutes. To thin the jail population, the sheriff will not hold anyone arrested on a misdemeanor if his bail is less than $7,500.
Those who remain are frisked by deputies, ordered to strip and shower, issued a towel and jail clothing, then given a meat and cheese sandwich and Kool-Aid. They are fingerprinted, photographed, X-rayed for tuberculosis and seated in front of a television monitor to watch a 45-minute videotape on jail routine. Then they are ushered into the general population.
Inside the jail, there is a dreary, institutional cast that cannot be masked by colorful murals of western vistas and wagon trains painted by inmates. Some walls are so thick with layers of green paint that they flex at the push of a fingertip.
A chill wind literally howls through many corridors, thanks to an imbalanced and antiquated air-conditioning system that works all too well in some areas and not at all in others, deputies and inmates say.
For many repeat offenders like Stephen Berkley, the discomforts and inconveniences of jail life are nothing new.
"Three hundred times," he laughed when asked how often he had been jailed before. "This is my job." His most recent arrest came after he broke into a warehouse filled with suede jackets.
Not only has the jail itself gone downhill, Berkley observed, but so have the people in it. Many are gang members bent on killing each other and anyone who stands between them.
"I got two nephews in here right now, one's a Blood; the other's a Crip," he said. "They're all crazy, crazy. You're dealing with a new breed now. These kids got no respect for the law."