In the wake of a job slowdown by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and pressure to fix their department's inmate work release program, the number of prisoners housed at the Men's Central Jail and North County Correctional Facility has soared to nearly 13,000--about 2,800 over the mandated limit.
The overcrowding has become so bad in some units that inmates say they have been forced to sleep on the concrete floors with nothing more than a blanket. Prisoners complain that they have to stuff toilet paper in their ears at night to keep the cockroaches from crawling inside.
The American Civil Liberties Union--which on several occasions has sued the county because of jail conditions--is demanding an emergency meeting with sheriff's officials to discuss the problems.
"Things have become out of control," said Paul Hoffman, a legal consultant to the ACLU. "We know for a fact that it is very overcrowded, and that's causing the rights of the inmates in the system to be violated, in our view. We need to deal with it. . . . The issues are too serious to wait."
Sheriff's officials--who are working to remedy the problems--say they believe several factors may have contributed to the cramped conditions at the two facilities.
Traditionally, the jail population goes up after the first of the year, said sheriff's custody chief Barry King. The rise may have been compounded by the fact that in January, the sheriff changed the criteria for releasing inmates eligible for the work release program, which allows participants to serve their sentences out of custody by doing manual labor by day at public work sites and returning home at night.
A Times investigation found massive shortcomings in the program, which allowed tens of thousands of convicted inmates out of jail early without even cursory reviews of their criminal records.
The department has since started an aggressive crackdown on skip-outs.
Further complicating the overcrowding woes, King said, the department has recently reduced the number of inmates housed at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic to make room for more state parole violators under a complicated deal that would have given the county funding to operate the downtown Twin Towers jail.
With the Joint Legislative Budget Committee tentatively turning down the funding proposal, King said, custody staff were considering shuffling more inmates into Pitchess. As of Friday, there were 1,100 in the south facility, about 800 below capacity.
But just how quickly the department can fix the problems depends on the cooperation of sheriff's deputies participating in a work slowdown at the Men's Central Jail. The Assn. of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs union is trying to send a message to the Board of Supervisors that its members want a raise.
King said he was hopeful that union members--who have been taking longer than usual putting inmates on the buses for their court hearings--would cooperate in alleviating the overcrowding.
"My expectation is they will perform as deputy sheriffs," King said.