Los Angeles County jails brace for Hurricane Hilary

Exterior of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Men's Central Jail facility in downtown Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Men’s Central Jail facility in downtown Los Angeles.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)
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While the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s search and rescue teams get ready for the coming storm, officials overseeing the county’s seven jails are making contingency plans in anticipation of Hurricane Hilary’s potential impacts on the county lockups.

Though the jails have dealt with leaks and drips in the past, Assistant Sheriff Sergio Aloma said they don’t have a history of major storm-related flooding and there were no plans to cancel regularly scheduled weekend visitation because of the weather.

Still, jail staff are preparing to open a temporary Custody Emergency Operations Center on Sunday morning and move to 12-hour shifts to increase staffing levels during the emergency. If the jails lose power or water, the Facilities Services Bureau will be on call to respond — though Aloma said they already have a stock of drinking water. He said they’re also ready to evacuate if needed.


“We will follow normal protocols for evacuations if necessary, in coordination with our transportation partners,” he said, adding that the jails have not required large-scale evacuations in the past.

Tropical Storm Hilary threatens heavy rains, flash flooding, high winds and intense surf across Southern California this weekend. Here’s what to expect.

Aug. 20, 2023

Some families and advocates for inmates were concerned.

“I’m in a constant state of worry,” said Darrell Munn, whose son has been in Twin Towers for six years. “The jails are old and dilapidated.”

People in jails and prisons are particularly vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather, including storms, wildfires and scorching heat — all threats that prisoners have little ability to avoid inside locked cells. When Hurricane Harvey walloped Texas in 2017, officials evacuated several prisons while others struggled with days-long water outages and reports of knee-high flooding in some cells. Four years later, dozens of prisons there faced even more dire conditions when most of the state lost power during an ice storm and prisoners shivered in the dark in unheated prisons, surviving on meager rations as they grappled with broken toilets.

Last winter in Los Angeles, the jails also struggled to deal with the effects of a cold snap. Earlier this year, an Office of Inspector General report found that the jails were so ill-equipped for cold weather that indoor temperatures sometimes fell into the 50s and inmates slept inside plastic garbage bags for warmth. Two inmates died after showing signs of hypothermia, the report said.

Some of the county’s aging lockups — which hold a little under 13,000 people — have also grappled with leaks and plumbing problems in the past. Last year LAist reported that a ruptured water line wreaked havoc on the Twin Towers jail, sending cascades of water down elevator shafts, collapsing a ceiling and preventing people from making it to court.

Attorney Meredith Gallen, a member of the board of directors for the public defenders’ union, is concerned about another spate of missed court dates.


“Generally we’re concerned about [the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s] ability to keep our clients safe in extreme weather and that includes during transport,” Gallen said. “But getting people to court on time has been a persistent issue that will be exacerbated by this storm, and there are ripple effects in people’s cases when they miss important court dates.”

Even if the local lockups have been relatively fortunate when it comes to past storm-related flooding, the threat of rising waters is something state prisons have grappled with before. Earlier this year, rising floodwaters prompted officials to stop sending new prisoners to two facilities in the Central Valley.

On Saturday, a spokeswoman for the state’s prison system said in an emailed statement that the corrections department is “ensuring each of its institutions that may be at risk implements emergency preparations and response plans, as needed, to protect their staff and incarcerated population.”

The statement did not give details on what those preparations entailed. As of Saturday afternoon, the department’s website showed that some units had visitation restrictions because of disease outbreaks but none was shut down because of the coming storm. A pop-up notice on the site warned of “high winds and risk of flooding in Southern California starting Sunday.”

In San Diego, one prisoner, who asked not to be named because of safety concerns, told The Times that officials had sent inmate workers to secure some of the cooling units on the facility’s roof.

An unprecedented tropical storm warning is in effect from the California-Mexico border to Point Mugu and for Catalina Island.

Aug. 20, 2023

“I haven’t met anybody who’s worried about the storm,” the prisoner said. “But I have seen a lot of people super-excited about the amount of rain and what it will look like.”


On Friday night in the rec yard, people gathered to look at the lightning and “strange colors” in the sky over the Palm Springs area.

“We are in San Diego’s first ever recorded tropical storm warning alert,” the prisoner added. “So mostly people are just excited to experience it.”

For many incarcerated people and their families, damage from natural disasters does not necessarily feel like the most pressing threat, especially in the Los Angeles jails where the poor conditions have been an ongoing source of concern and lawsuits.

“We worry more about abuse and lack of accountability than we would ever worry about a hurricane or natural disaster,” said Munn. “We are worried about injustice.”