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He was beaten to death in Men’s Central Jail. It took staff nearly 4 hours to notice

A gray midcentury building sitting behind razor wire and a sign reading "Los Angeles County Sheriff / Men's Central Jail"
Masoud Rahmati died hours after an alleged pre-dawn attack at Men’s Central Jail, renewing concerns about supervision of inmates in L.A. County.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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By the time staff at Men’s Central Jail noticed something was wrong, Masoud Rahmati had been dying for nearly four hours. It started with a pre-dawn attack in a shower area, records say, and other inmates eventually dragged the 50-year-old to his bunk. Beaten and bloodied, he lay there for two more hours before help showed up.

By then, it was too late. Just after 9 a.m., paramedics declared Rahmati dead, according to records from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

His death in mid-June was one of at least three homicides in the county’s jails this year. After four years without any recorded inmate-on-inmate killings, county data show that since 2020, the jails have averaged three per year, a figure that’s risen even as the incarcerated population has decreased.

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The persistence of violent deaths behind bars — despite decades of court-ordered monitoring and years of outside oversight — underscores how hard it has been for Los Angeles to fix its troubled jail system.

Sheriff’s Department officials and county prosecutors have declined to provide more details about the circumstances surrounding this year’s killings, though they have confirmed that inmates are criminally charged in all three cases.

For months before Rahmati’s death, oversight inspectors had flagged the dorm he was housed in as dangerous for mentally ill people due to crowded conditions and a lack of supervision. Inconsistent safety checks have been a long-standing problem in the local jails, where at least 37 inmates have died this year due to natural causes, suicides, fentanyl overdoses and more.

Asst. Sheriff Sergio Aloma said it was “difficult to speculate” why there had been so many deaths, but pointed to the steady flow of detainees through the county’s seven jails, which see nearly 60,000 bookings each year.

“We operate the largest jail system in the country,” he said when asked about the apparent supervision problems. “Our staff has literally millions of interactions with our incarcerated population on a yearly basis.”

Jail officials are still investigating Rahmati’s death, Aloma added, without offering further details. He stressed that the Sheriff’s Department has a “constitutional obligation for the care and safety of our incarcerated population.”

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Before Rahmati’s latest incarceration, he had struggled with homelessness and mental health problems for years, according to his family’s attorney, Jeremy Lessem.

“He had been more or less sleeping on the streets,” Lessem told The Times. “His brother had been trying to get him food and clothing, and his brother tried to get him to live in his home — but he preferred to live on the streets.”

Records show Rahmati had been in and out of jail and repeatedly deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial.

After he was arrested in December 2022 on allegations of battery, records show, his public defender urged a judge to deem him incompetent once again. Instead, he was sent to a mental health court and ultimately found competent to face the charges. With his case pending, he was housed in a fifth-floor dorm for inmates with mental illnesses.

Earlier this year, the Sybil Brand Commission, a county body tasked with oversight and inspection of the local jails, issued a sweeping report on the conditions behind bars in Los Angeles County. Most of the section on Men’s Central Jail focused on problems in the fifth-floor dorms.

The report said that staff at the jail are required to conduct inspections “multiple times each hour” on the fifth floor, and “thus, when this Commission finds poor and degrading conditions in areas under high or medium observation, the presumption is the existence of those conditions is known to custody personnel and therefore attributable to a lack of oversight or supervision.”

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The report described “warehouse-like spaces” where men live on bunks stacked three-high, “shrouded in sheets or towels for a modicum of privacy.”

Though state law requires that the dorms hold no more than 64 people, the fifth-floor units routinely house nearly 90, according to the commission. Fights are frequent, the report said. It described air circulation and access to hot water as “intermittent.”

It was around 5:30 a.m. on June 13 when three inmates on the fifth floor attacked Rahmati, for reasons that are still unclear. According to an autopsy report that Lessem shared with The Times but that has not been publicly released, three men grabbed Rahmati while he was brushing his teeth in the bathroom, then forced him toward the shower area and began beating him.

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“That was captured on video, and no one was paying enough attention at the time to notice,” Lessem said.

As the attackers hit and kicked him, Rahmati collapsed — and his assailants continued their attack. Eventually, the three attackers returned to the dorm area, leaving him bruised and battered on the bathroom floor. Around 7 a.m., other inmates brought him out of the shower and put him on his bunk. It’s not clear from the records whether he was unconscious.

For the next two hours, records show, Rahmati remained in his bunk. At around 9:10 a.m., some inmates flagged down deputies who were making rounds and told them about a “man down” in one of the bunks.

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The three men suspected of attacking Rahmati were charged with murder less than two weeks after his death, though the Sheriff’s Department did not publicly list the death as a homicide for several more weeks.

Lawyers for the accused did not respond or declined to comment for this story. All three men — Jaime Garcia Alfaro, Carlos Morataya and George Adrian Hernandez — face murder charges.

When The Times asked why staff on the fifth floor didn’t notice Rahmati’s condition sooner, department officials said safety checks in those housing areas are supposed to occur every 30 minutes. They didn’t specify whether those checks occurred on the morning of the homicide, or explain how the staff failed to spot the attack.

The lack of supervision has been an ongoing problem in the county jails, particularly in Men’s Central, the largest lockup. Earlier this year, The Times reported on a series of leaked surveillance videos that showed staff failing to notice or intervene as inmates fought or attacked each other. In one case, a dozen men stabbed another inmate for roughly 14 minutes before jailers arrived.

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Less than a week after that story was published in June, a similar incident occurred one dorm over. According to Inspector Gen. Max Huntsman, on June 29, several men in a rec room attacked another man for more than 10 minutes. The victim survived, and officials said attempted murder charges had since been filed.

The lack of supervision has also led to other safety hazards. Last month, The Times reported that for several decades, inmates at Men’s Central have been lighting fires in their cells to cook food and heat water. As there are no smoke detectors in the housing areas, it is up to jail staff to spot the blazes and manually pull an alarm. That doesn’t always happen, and an oversight inspector who visited the jail in June reported seeing three large fires burning inside cells. The inspector, Mary Veral, said she was “shocked” and likened Men’s Central Jail to a “Third World country.”

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It’s unclear to what extent lapses in supervision may have played a role in either of the other recorded homicides at the jail this year. One of the men, 37-year-old Andrew Balderrama, died in county custody in May, though officials have not said how he was killed. The other victim, 51-year-old Joseph Hutchinson, was stabbed to death in August in Men’s Central Jail, an incident that The Times previously reported could represent fallout from the prison yard killing of a powerful Mexican Mafia member.

Lawyers for the men charged in the killings of Balderrama and Hutchinson did not respond to requests for comment.

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