Senators fault Department of Justice for ‘appalling’ conditions in Los Angeles jails

A Sheriff officer stands guard over inmates at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility April 27, 2017, in Los Angeles.
A guard at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles. Inmates at jails across the U.S. are suffering from overcrowding, violence and abuse.
(Chris Carlson/AP)

The federal government started investigating Los Angeles jails in 1996 — back when Bill Clinton was president, the Spice Girls were all the rage, and Tupac Shakur’s killing dominated the news.

The U.S. Department of Justice was concerned that mentally ill inmates had been abused or cared for so poorly that their basic constitutional rights were violated. Those concerns led to a lawsuit and years of federal monitoring.

But more than a quarter of a century later, change in the country’s largest jail system has been halting at best. In a blistering letter sent late last year to Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland, four U.S. senators described conditions in L.A. County’s jails as a “humanitarian crisis” and “appalling.” They cited reports of people routinely chained to chairs, denied medications, forced to urinate in sinks and left to sit in their own feces.


The Democratic senators — Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — also raised concerns about jails in New York City and Miami, which are under federal monitoring as well. In lockups in all three cities, conditions “appear to have grown worse,” the senators said.

They placed blame on the Department of Justice.

“The DOJ’s failure to correct or prevent the constitutional and human rights violations in facilities that are under consent decrees undermines the Department’s broader efforts, as well as the public’s faith and confidence in our legal system,” the senators wrote in the letter, obtained exclusively by The Times.

The lawmakers laid out a series of questions — about what steps the Justice Department had taken to correct the problems, how it was managing the federal monitors and how many lawyers had been assigned to the cases — and requested a reply within two weeks. Four months later, the senators’ offices confirmed that they had not received a response. The Department of Justice on Friday acknowledged only that it had received the letter.

“We are aware of the request from the Senators, but do not have any comment at this time,” spokeswoman Aryele Bradford wrote in an email. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Corene Kendrick, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing inmates in two separate federal class-action suits against the county’s lockups, framed the local problems as part of a broader plight.

“In the past year, conditions in many jails across the country, including Los Angeles, have deteriorated to a crisis point of disgraceful inhumanity,” she said. “It is noteworthy that jail conditions are so abysmal that these four U.S. senators — including both of California’s senators — called on Atty. Gen. Garland and DOJ to step up and address the human rights violations in the jails that are under DOJ consent decrees.”


Weeks before the senators penned their late-October letter, a series of court filings in one of the two ACLU cases revealed just how bad conditions behind bars had gotten. The civil rights group provided the court with images of mentally ill detainees — most of whom had not been convicted of a crime — chained to chairs for days at a time and alleged that they were routinely denied basic necessities such as clean water and working toilets.

“Everyone is on edge because it is crowded,” one inmate wrote in a sworn declaration. “The place smells of urine and excrement because some toilets don’t work, and people who are chained to chairs sometimes pee on the floor because the deputies won’t unchain them.”

Following a hearing in September, the federal court issued a restraining order directing the county to make modest improvements, such as no longer chaining mentally ill people to benches for more than four hours, no longer leaving groups of people locked in large mesh cages for more than eight hours and no longer leaving inmates in areas without working toilets.

Though that directive may have forced some improvement, a county-appointed oversight official who visited one of the lockups last week reported “nightmare” conditions, including a lack of hot water, “vermin” crawling up walls and a man housed in a cell with walls covered in feces.

“There is an urgent need for a major course correction,” said Alex Sherman, vice chair of the county’s Sybil Brand Commission for Institutional Inspections.

In the Justice Department case, attorneys have asked the federal court to set deadlines for the county to improve mental healthcare — a request that came weeks after the senators fired off their letter asking why the DOJ had not done more to fix the problems behind bars.


That request will go before a federal judge Monday at a 10 a.m. status conference. The court will also hear an update in one of the two ACLU cases, which relates to excessive use of force in the county’s jails.

The developments in Los Angeles come amid reports of worsening conditions in jails across the country. New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex has made headlines for an uptick in deaths. Lockups in West Virginia, Texas, Washington and other states are struggling with problems caused by aging facilities, increasing populations and surging violence.

According to Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans who studies jails and prisons, those issues may be more widespread than is apparent.

“When jails are under consent decree, that means that we have seen and recognized the problem,” she said. “But there are hundreds of jails where these problems haven’t yet been unearthed.”

Many troubled jails may not have been the subject of class-action suits, she said, and it’s often those cases that prompt the Department of Justice to intervene and seek a consent decree requiring long-term federal oversight.

“Part of the reason we know these consent decrees are failing is because we have federal monitors there,” she said. “Just imagine if every jail had some sort of independent oversight to know the ways in which jails are failing their constitutional obligations.”