Great Read: How the L.A. County jail’s version of democracy has changed life for inmates
The tall man with the bushy black beard gestured at his dark blue jail uniform. His shirt barely reached his navel, leaving a swath of bare skin above his waistband.
“I’m 6 feet 4. My shirt is like a crop top,” he said to laughter from inmates as jail laundry supervisors listened.
Too small. Dirty. Full of holes. Until now, there was little the inmates of Dorm 45 could do except wear the garments or cut slits to make them fit better.
But on this June day at the Los Angeles County jail’s South Facility, they were venting their frustrations to the people in charge.
This was democracy, jailhouse style, complete with representatives elected by other inmates and a meeting agenda handwritten in pencil — ballpoint pens aren’t allowed because they might be used as weapons.
Except for the uniforms and the jail-centric discussion topics, it could have been a city council meeting in Torrance or Alhambra, with four council members seated at a table in front of the room and occasional comments coming from the inmates in the audience, who raised their hands and politely waited for the go-ahead to speak.
Item number two: “Poor-quality laundry.”
“The clothes we get here are like garbage. The shirts look like floor towels,” said Angel Tristan, a council member with a mustache and shaved head serving three years for burglary, as two laundry supervisors listened. “The boxers are boy-sized boxers. They’re for little kids. They will rip.”
In the five months since the first inmate council met, Los Angeles County jail officials have parried questions about topics including medical care, television programming and exercise equipment — and, of course, the food, known by nicknames such as “Scariyaki” and “Brain Matter.”
In the nation’s largest county jail system, where violence and substandard living conditions have long been the norm, the inmate councils may be part of a larger shift toward more humane treatment of inmates, as a federal judge oversees reforms and a plan to replace the dungeon-like Men’s Central Jail moves forward.
“Is there a need for them to attack each other, burn a barrack down or attack police? No. This gives them another way of venting,” said Capt. Chuck Antuna, who ran South Facility until recently and started the councils to give inmates a voice.
Having an outlet for their complaints may make them less likely to erupt against one another or jail staff — or so he hopes.
Because the jail administration has the final say, the inmate councils aren’t true democracies. They may yet fall victim to cynicism, factionalism or low participation, as many real-world governments have. But so far, the weekly meetings have been packed with men in dark blue or light green uniforms pressing jail officials for answers.
There have already been tangible results. Televisions now remain on until 1 a.m. on weekends instead of being switched off at 9:30. In response to the laundry issues, Antuna said he would try to get larger uniforms.
“If there is a remedy,” he told the inmates, “let’s find it.”
After a conflict between black and Latino inmates erupted into a melee, Antuna offered the men of Dorm 45 a choice.
All of the men, who were enrolled in an educational program called Merit, could be “rolled up” — in jail speak, kicked out — and then serve the rest of their time with no opportunity to improve themselves. Or they could start an inmate council and learn how to work together.
The men chose the second option. To avoid further racial conflict, Antuna decided that blacks, Latinos and whites would each elect their own representatives.
Each ethnicity picked two reps, who were then approved by a voice vote — aye or nay — of all 90 inmates. Dorm 45 became the second dorm at South Facility’s rural Castaic campus, after Dorm 43, to form a council, holding its first meeting at the end of May.
In the California state prisons, similar councils have been a fixture for decades, providing a useful line of communication between inmates and prison officials.
“At times, the answer is no,” said Ralph Diaz, deputy director of facility operations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “If it’s no, they’re told why they can’t. If it’s a yes, we address it.”
In the county system, inmates once cycled in and out too rapidly for elected representatives to be feasible. There were occasional “town hall” meetings where inmates could air their concerns. But for the most part, it was up to an informal network of inmate leaders, known as “shot callers” or “number ones,” to communicate with jail officials.
Recently, however, with legal reforms designed to ease state prison overcrowding, some low-level felons have been serving their time at county jails rather than the state system. To keep them occupied and to prepare them for life on the outside, jail officials are trying to offer some of the amenities traditionally found at longer-term institutions.
Vince Callier, Antuna’s successor at South Facility, said he plans to continue with the councils. Antuna has started councils in some dorms at Men’s Central Jail, where he now works, and hopes they will eventually spread to the rest of the county jail system of 17,000 inmates.
At 52, Charles Wesley is older than many of his fellow inmates. Tall with glasses, a faint goatee and a slightly stooped posture, he has a record of drunk driving and other criminal convictions dating to the 1980s. Charges of assault and making criminal threats, coupled with a high bail, landed him behind bars again as he awaits trial.
As the secretary of Dorm 45’s inmate council, he used a jail-issue pencil to print the June 17 meeting agenda in neat, right-slanting script with careful spelling and grammar.
“Can we add a music channel into the T.V. schedule, also education channels, e.g. Discovery and the History Channel?” he wrote in an item about television programming.
At the meeting, Wesley projected a quiet seriousness as a laundry supervisor described how the county jail system keeps its inmates clothed — 160,000 pounds of laundry washed per day, 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of damaged linen removed from circulation.
Jail is an all-too-familiar place for Wesley and most of the other inmate council members, who have been in and out of trouble all their lives. They’re used to being ignored by their jailers, they said.
“We felt like our questions were not being heard,” said Rick Herst, 29, a council member for Dorm 43 who was sentenced to more than five years for property theft and recently earned his high school diploma while behind bars. “Speaking face to face, it’s hard for them to avoid giving an answer.”
But some inmates remain skeptical, wondering about jail officials’ motives and making disparaging remarks about the council.
“A lot of them are making little side comments, thinking that there won’t be change,” Wesley said. “I go, ‘Either you’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution. What do you want to be?’”
At a May 27 meeting for Dorm 43, Thomas Hilke wore two pairs of eyeglasses, one on top of the other, trying to approximate his prescription. The jail medical bureau isn’t typically able to make new glasses for inmates, and Hilke has no family on the outside to mail eyewear to him. The makeshift solution wasn’t working.
“I’m going blind,” he said at the meeting.
Antuna told Hilke that someone would follow up with him one on one.
In Dorm 45, council member Tristan spoke up on behalf of Spanish-speaking inmates who had complained to him about a language barrier at medical appointments. Healthcare workers don’t understand them when they explain their symptoms, he said at the June 17 meeting.
A jail nurse responded that there is usually a deputy or other staff member who speaks Spanish and can interpret.
Then there is the food. The discussion was familiar to anyone who has eaten in a school cafeteria.
“Do they sample it themselves?” one inmate asked. “Because some of that stuff looks like ‘Fear Factor,’ man.”
Council member Robert Scott, who has been charged with drug possession, asked whether the popular meals — burritos, chicken patties, hot dogs — could be served more often.
A food services manager in a white chef’s jacket noted that there are strict rules about how many calories and how much sodium can be served per week. Increasing the frequency of the favorites would upset that balance, he said.
But he asked the inmates to name the worst meals.
Scariyaki — teriyaki — and Brain Matter — veggie pasta — got several mentions. “Chicken and rice!” someone called out.
Wesley said he would put the list in writing. Everyone clapped to thank the chef for coming.
After the meeting, council members — white, black and Latino — remained sitting together at the table. They said race relations have improved, just as Antuna had hoped, helped along by group discussions of the gripes many inmates have in common.
Tristan, 37, the Latino leader, has been in and out of jail since he was 18. For most of that time, he said, he had to “suck it up and take it” because the jail administration wouldn’t listen to his concerns. The inmate council has changed that:
“It makes us feel like we’re getting our point across, our voices heard.”
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