L.A. County board said unaware of U.S. focus on mentally ill inmates

A U.S. Justice Department report issued last week praised Los Angeles County's recent move to consider the diversion of more mentally ill inmates away from the jails. Above, an inmate at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors says he and his colleagues were kept in the dark about the extent of federal officials’ concerns about alleged mistreatment of mentally ill inmates in county jails.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said board members and their staffs were not privy to communications sent by the U.S. Justice Department to Sheriff’s Department and county mental health officials regarding ongoing problems until September. That’s when county officials received a letter announcing a federal civil-rights investigation of the jail system.

“That was our notification,” Ridley-Thomas said. “From my point of view, that’s hugely problematic.”


The issue gained urgency last week, when federal officials issued a scathing report on jail conditions for mentally ill inmates, citing a recent surge in jail suicides. The Justice Department said it would seek court oversight of reforms.

In 2002, the county approved an agreement with federal officials requiring improvements in the handling of mentally ill inmates. But unlike a similar — and more recent — agreement with the federal government involving the county’s treatment of juveniles in the probation system, board members neither requested nor received regular updates on efforts to resolve the federal jail issues.

There were conflicting portrayals Tuesday of who was responsible for the communication breakdown. Some county officials and staff — including Ridley-Thomas, who joined the board in 2008 — said they didn’t know until September that the county had entered into a formal agreement with the federal government concerning jail problems.

Anna Pembedjian, criminal justice aide to Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, said she had been “informally” aware the Justice Department had been reviewing jail issues. But she said she had never seen a formal report on what its interest was. News of the federal investigation of the jails revealed “a disconnect between the involved departments and their reporting mechanism to the board,” she said.

In their September letter to top county officials, Justice Department attorneys said they had become “increasingly concerned about use of force and alleged abuse by jail deputies and staff” and had brought those issues up repeatedly in letters regarding the county’s obligations under the 2002 agreement.

County Chief Executive William T Fujioka said Tuesday that he did not recall seeing compliance reports before September and referred questions to the Sheriff’s and Mental Health departments. Representatives of those departments said that if the compliance reports were shared with board offices, it would have been via the county’s attorneys. The county’s top lawyer, County Counsel John Krattli, declined to comment.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said the department received the most recent federal compliance letter in January 2013. She declined to release it to The Times, citing potential litigation.


Since September, county board members have received closed-door briefings on federal concerns. Nishida said sheriff’s officials plan to meet with federal attorneys “in the near future.”

The Justice Department report issued last week gave the county credit for improvements in some areas and praised a recent move by the board to consider the diversion of more mentally ill inmates away from the jails. Sheriff’s and mental health officials said it failed to give them credit for other improvements, including recently implemented suicide-prevention measures.