Inmates Forced to Sleep on Floor

Times Staff Writer

With Los Angeles County jails closing and staff shortages growing acute, many inmates with medical problems are being forced to sleep on cold concrete floors, sometimes for days, as they wait to be transferred to a cellblock.

The overcrowding, described last week by jailers, inmates and others, has reached the point that it exceeds court orders governing the management of the county jail system.

As many as 950 inmates stream into the jail each day, and prisoners routinely get stuck in a bottleneck at the Inmate Reception Center, which is not equipped to house them overnight.


Hundreds of inmates with medical or psychological problems must be seen by the jail’s medical staff before they are assigned a bunk, and the waiting period to see a doctor can occasionally drag on for two or three days.

“I thought, since I’m handicapped, I should have been given a bed,” said Mitchell Hart, a 49-year-old who spent two days in jail last week for panhandling at a freeway offramp. Hart, who is missing his left arm and several teeth, was instead left to sleep on the jailhouse floor with no mat or blanket. “They treat a dog better,” he said.

Once they reach their cellblock, many inmates still lack a bed. Each night, about 350 “floor-sleepers,” as they are called by jailers, settle onto foam mats on the floor. Under a series of court orders obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, inmates are supposed to be given a bed after a single night on the floor, and everyone assigned to the floor must be given a mat.

But that does not always happen, particularly in the aging Men’s Central Jail downtown and parts of the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, said Jody Kent, an ACLU legal advocate who monitors jailhouse conditions.

“People are falling through the cracks on a regular basis, where they end up on the floor for three days or a week,” Kent said.

ACLU attorneys and sheriff’s officials say that the problem stems from an acute shortage of jail personnel. Sheriff’s Chief Chuck Jackson, who oversees the county jails, said the Los Angeles system guards about 17,800 inmates with 2,100 deputies. In Cook County, Ill., by comparison, about 2,500 jailers watch over 10,600 inmates. In New York City, 9,500 jailers guard 14,100 inmates.


“They have almost four times the staff that we have and 4,000 [fewer] inmates to watch,” Jackson said. “Nobody believes it, but we are an extremely efficient organization.”

Over the last two years, the county Sheriff’s Department has closed several jailhouses for lack of money to staff them. The cuts eliminated more than 3,000 beds from the system, forcing Sheriff Lee Baca to reduce the jail population by freeing thousands of low-level offenders who served a fraction of their sentences.

The remaining prisoners have been squeezed into fewer facilities, aggravating tensions that simmer behind bars. Since October, five inmates have been killed inside the County Jail.

Inmates complain that they are jammed into overcrowded cells or dorms packed with more than 100 men and not enough beds. Donnell Green, a 37-year-old Compton man arrested for car theft last week, said he was assigned to a bunk that was already occupied, so he slept on the floor for four days.

“They’re warehousing people,” he said after his release.

The crowding begins just inside the jailhouse gates at the Inmate Reception Center in downtown Los Angeles, a rambling cinderblock station that takes in and disgorges hundreds of prisoners 24 hours a day.

On the way in, inmates are slowly herded from room to room as they are fingerprinted and classified, and then made to take showers and change into blue jumpsuits. The process can take hours or even a full day, especially after a busy weekend.


With arrests up more than 10% this year, the reception center is often crammed with sullen-eyed men waiting in line, waiting on benches, waiting with their noses pressed to the glass window of a holding tank or waiting in a sprawled-out heap on the floor. Women are processed separately, and there are far fewer of them.

To improve inmate health and safety -- as required by a 2002 agreement with the federal Department of Justice -- each prisoner is asked a detailed series of questions, including whether they take medication, have mental health problems or “a history of medical problems.” Prisoners who answer yes to any of those questions are diverted to the jail medical clinic.

On Thursday afternoon last week, 398 inmates waited to be examined by one of two doctors and 13 nurses on duty. By 11 p.m., more than 250 men were still jammed into the waiting area, a series of holding tanks lined with metal benches and toilets. They were fed occasional bologna sandwiches and cartons of grape juice.

A small cluster of deputies was stationed at the front of the room, watching over a sea of blue-shirted prisoners in various states of numbness or distress. There were men wedged underneath benches, trying to sleep. Men with black eyes or other injuries curled up on the floor while others, heads in bandages, nodded off as they slumped on benches, sometimes missing their names as they were finally called out by the medical staff.

Inside the examination room, the only doctor on night duty said that people with less serious medical or psychological problems wait longer. “There is only one physician, and I can’t see everybody at once,” Dr. Raleigh Saddler said. “You need more physicians. It’s that simple.”

Up to 15% of inmates who enter jail needing medical care have to wait for more than 24 hours, said Lt. Steve Smith, who manages the jail’s Medical Services Bureau.


The jail system has just 22 doctors and about 600 nurses, he said, representing a roughly 15% vacancy rate.

In June, the Board of Supervisors allocated an extra $5 million to improve jailhouse security, but officials say much more is needed to properly staff the facilities. If Los Angeles County voters approve a half-cent sales tax increase in November, the Sheriff’s Department would reap about $50 million a year for its jails.

“Even if we fill all of our vacancies, we still need additional staff,” Smith said. He is also hoping for more funding, perhaps $2 million, to convert a closed section of the Twin Towers jail into a medical clinic so that incoming inmates can have beds and hot meals while they wait.

“It’s all about money,” he said. “It always is.”