As the hour crept toward midnight, the street life outside the county jails in downtown Los Angeles grew rowdy.
A teenage boy, reclining on top of a garbage can like it was a Barcalounger, leered at a woman in a pink cardigan and drawled, “How handsome is the guy you’re waiting for?”
The woman tugged the sweater tightly around her shoulders and fixed her gaze on the Inmate Reception Center door. She was waiting for her son.
An inmate, freshly released, lurched across the sidewalk, shouting: “The FBI, they’re the ones I hate. But the Mafia, I love the Mafia. The Mafia’s on my side.”
“Have I gotten so prissy?” whispered the woman. “I guess I’m pretty sheltered. I think this is pretty scary.”
Fear and anger, relief and jubilation -- it’s all on naked display on Bauchet Street, the scene of one of the city’s oddest nightly dramas.
Almost 10,000 inmates are locked in the Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers complex on the dead-end block. Los Angeles County releases inmates 24 hours a day and each night dozens of them, sometimes 100 or more, stream out the jailhouse doors and onto the city’s darkened streets.
Friends and family wait for some. But many have no money and no way to get home -- if they even have a home. For those, a free shuttle will ferry them to the homeless shelters and drab hotels of skid row.
Earlier this year, an inmate named Gustavo Ortega was released in the middle of the night. An insulin-dependent diabetic whose right foot had just been amputated, Ortega never made it home. Three days later, he was found barely alive in the jail’s reception center and died in the hospital. His family did not know he had been released.
The tragedy focused attention on nighttime releases, but Sheriff Lee Baca, who oversees the county jails, says he is legally bound to release inmates once their term is up -- even if that means the middle of the night.
In 2001, the county agreed to pay $27 million to settle several class-action lawsuits that accused the county of routinely holding inmates beyond their release dates.
“Now I’m very conservative,” Baca said. “I say, get them out as soon as the law says they should be out. I don’t care if it’s 1 a.m. or 1 in the afternoon.”
Los Angeles is not alone. Other urban jails follow similar procedures. Orange County regularly frees inmates at 2 or 3 a.m. In Houston, prisoners leave the Harris County jail around the clock. At New York City’s Rikers Island complex, inmates are released en masse at 5 a.m. and transported to a subway stop in Queens.
The Los Angeles jails are so jammed that it can take eight or more hours to funnel inmates through the jailhouse and onto the streets. Paperwork must be processed, fingerprints scanned, crime databases searched, clothing returned. With hundreds of inmates slated for release each day, some don’t make it out until the wee hours.
The delays have turned Bauchet Street into an unusual open-air waiting room, where people like Tennille Hempen, a 27-year-old woman from Long Beach, shiver outside for hours.
On a recent night, she waited more than 10 hours for her best friend to be released.
A few feet away, the lbarra family -- four women who piled into a car and drove from Lancaster to wait for an inmate -- wrapped themselves in a blanket and wobbled up and down the street to keep warm.
“It’s like an airport, except worse,” Hempen said. “At least they have an arrival schedule. Here, you just stand and wait.”
The nighttime releases have spawned a cottage industry of taxi drivers and bail bondsmen who mingle in the dark alongside waiting families.
“This is the safest place in Los Angeles,” proclaimed Nelson Elias Recalde, a roly-poly cabbie who says he spends most of his working nights trolling for fares outside the jails. “You think the guys who just got out want to go back? Over here, people have no drugs, no weapons. They’re like angels.”
Sensing an opportunity, Recalde sidled up to Joselyn lbarra and tried to persuade her to leave so that he could drive her jailed brother home. “Right now, you could be home watching TV!” he said.
“I’d rather wait for my brother,” lbarra replied.
“A taxi to Lancaster is $164,” added her mother, Elsa lbarra. “It’s too much money.”
So they waited.
Diversions are few on Bauchet Street. At night, the vendors who sell beef burritos and chilled sodas go home. The pay phones at the corner fall silent.
There are scarcely any sheriff’s deputies to be seen.
It’s usually quiet, except for the steady hum of the sickly yellow lights outside the Inmate Reception Center, where prisoners are brought in and let go. There’s a waiting room on the second floor, but many families prefer to stay outside so they don’t miss inmates leaving. They stand in knots, sit on a concrete wall and pace the sidewalk marked by splotches of gum and littered with crumpled cigarette packs.
Every hour or two, unless a fight causes the jail to be locked down, the door swings open and out spills a handful of criminals -- burglars and vandals and drunken drivers and other small-time miscreants. Most are men, an assortment of ages and races, but there are a few women who leave through a different door.
Inmates exit wearing their street clothes, looking more or less like rumpled versions of everyone else, except for a telltale white plastic identification bracelet around their wrists.
The cool night air buzzes with conversation as freed prisoners thread their shoelaces -- which were taken from them to prevent suicides -- back through the eyelets of their sneakers.
“Who got a cigarette for a dollar?” one man shouted, waving a bill in the air.
Next to him, another inmate flipped open a cellphone. “Hey, dog, can you come pick me up at the county?” he asked.
The moment of freedom is, by all appearances, a sweet one.
“Fresh air, man!” said Danny Fregoso, an 18-year-old from Culver City who served more than two months for burglary and receiving stolen property. “I can’t wait to get home.”
Freed inmates search for a familiar face. Sometimes there’s a brief mother-and-child reunion, a few hugs and tears to brighten the night.
Many simply take off on foot, ambling into the darkness. Bus drivers sometimes take pity and let them ride free if they’re still wearing their bracelet, according to several former prisoners.
But the bracelet does not -- contrary to jailhouse rumor -- entitle wearers to a free meal at the Denny’s restaurant two blocks away.
“Ninety-nine percent of them say that, and they argue with me when I say it’s not true,” said Bruce Azimi, the night manager at Denny’s, which is open around the clock and is a popular spot for a first meal as a free man.
For those with no place to go, there are always the guys from Volunteers of America, a nonprofit group that runs a homeless drop-in center on San Julian Street.
“What’s up, bro? You got a ride tonight?” Anthony Sparks, one of the group’s van drivers, asks inmates who look particularly lost or haggard.
Sparks and his partner, Oliver Rubin, take them to the drop-in center, where they can get a bed for the night and sign up for drug treatment or housing programs in the morning.
Others catch a ride to a bus stop or, if they live nearby, their home. At about 1:30 a.m. on a recent night, four men piled into the van, some stony-faced and silent, others eager to vent.
“You can be in there for jaywalking and they treat you like a hardened rapist,” said David Ostrum, 33, who served 23 days for driving with a suspended license. He described men sleeping for days on the floor and said he saw one sheriff’s deputy kick a defiant inmate in the chest. Others complained about lousy food or leaky toilets flooding their cells.
Rubin has heard it all and he doesn’t have much sympathy.
“You got to understand, we talking ‘bout jail, OK?” he said after dropping the men off. “You in jail. Jail don’t supposed to be nice.”
The 24-hour torrent of prisoners leaving jail rankles some downtown business owners, who contend that the practice is misguided and swells the area’s homeless population.
“It’s our feeling that if you are arrested in Pomona, you should be taken back to Pomona,” said Victor Franco, senior vice president of government affairs for the Central City Assn., which represents 450 downtown business and property owners. “Many of the prisoners, whether they have a drug or alcohol problem, they do tend to hook up with the existing homeless problem.”
Baca, too, says he wishes there were a better way.
“In the best of all worlds, I would prefer that the inmate, when released, be taken straight to his or her home and dropped off there,” the sheriff said. He said he would also like to notify local police stations that the prisoner was returning to the community, to give officers a chance, as he put it, just to say, “Hey, we know you’re out. Behave yourself.”
When Fregoso’s mother, aunt and grandmother finally showed up, they stopped their Ford Explorer in the middle of the street. Doors flew open. The women engulfed Fregoso, smothering him with hugs and kisses.
“You’re so skinny!” exclaimed his mother, Alma.
That’s what three months of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches will do, he told her. His black shorts, now about 4 inches too wide, were rolled up at the waist to keep them from falling down.
Fregoso could not stop grinning.
As Rubin shepherded yet another ragged group of onetime prisoners into the Volunteers of America van, he could not help but comment on the emotional reunion.
“I’d be embarrassed, having my mom coming up here looking for me,” he said scornfully. “The other guys, they got their girlfriends, their wives. And you got your mama waiting on you.”