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U.S. Justice Dept. Investigates Alleged Mistreatment of Mentally Ill in County Jails

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles County jail system--caretaker of a vast population of mentally ill inmates--is the target of a U.S. Justice Department investigation of allegations that those prisoners have been mistreated and deprived of their constitutional rights, officials said Thursday.

Federal authorities want to explore complaints that jailers have improperly used restraints on mentally ill inmates, provided inadequate staffing and resources to care for them, and failed to do enough to prevent suicides, among other problems, U.S. Assistant Atty. Gen. Deval L. Patrick wrote in a letter last week to county officials.

“The purpose of the investigation,” Patrick said, “is to determine whether conditions in the jail system violate the constitutional rights of its inmates.”

There have been signs, experts say, that the Los Angeles jails are actually doing a better job in the last several years in caring for mentally ill inmates, who have been placed into lockups in increasing numbers as outside medical services have been scaled back. But a Justice Department official said Thursday: “We’ve had a number of complaints from individuals and public interest organizations recently, and that prompted us to open the investigation.”

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Sheriff’s officials would not comment Thursday on their treatment of the mentally ill or on the investigation, except to say in a written statement: “The department welcomes this inquiry and will cooperate with the investigation. We are confident that the investigation will determine that the department abides by all laws protecting the constitutional rights of inmates within its custody.”

Last month, the county approved a $2.5-million settlement for a mentally ill man who was released from jail and, disoriented, was crippled for life when he wandered into the path of a train. Officials have pledged new release policies to prevent a recurrence.

Under a federal law authorizing the Justice Department to investigate agencies that incarcerate or institutionalize people, the Justice Department typically sends lawyers and experts to review targeted facilities.

The Justice Department is conducting about 30 such investigations at jails across the country, but this is the first one in a decade in the Los Angeles system.

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A probe in the mid-1980s of local jail conditions did not result in any court action, but did produce an “informal” agreement to resolve certain issues in the treatment of the system’s massive population, the Justice Department official said.

But the current investigation is narrower in scope, focusing largely on a population of mentally ill inmates estimated by the Sheriff’s Department to number 1,800.

A 1991 series in The Times, detailing how the jail had become a hospital of last resort for mentally ill prisoners, triggered a county study on the problem along with broad recommendations.

Dr. Kim M. Thorburn, a Hawaii jail specialist who visited local facilities in August to track progress, said Thursday that key improvements have been made. Patients are being restrained less often, she said, and mental health specialists are working more closely with jailers.

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But she said the current investigation may spark other needed reforms. “These outside pressures are really what bring the necessary changes,” she said.

Paul L. Hoffman, an attorney who has tracked jail conditions for the ACLU, said he is unaware of what prompted the Justice Department to step into the fray now.

“The big question is, what is their particular interest,” he said. “I don’t really have a handle on that right now. . . . But I’m looking forward to talking to them about it.”

Times staff writer Julie Tamaki contributed to this story.

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