More than 100 prisoners, many shaved and tattooed, crowded into the hard pews of the Men’s Central Jail chapel and craned their necks to get a good look at “The Man.”
Sheriff Lee Baca, the top authority figure in Los Angeles County’s troubled jail system, had summoned them for a rare town-hall-style meeting Saturday morning. The reason for the gathering? Allegations of abusive behavior on the part of jail guards and the disclosure of a federal law enforcement probe into Baca’s jails.
“I want to hear your concerns,” the sheriff told the men, all denizens of the aging jail’s infamous third floor, where many use-of-force incidents occur. “Don’t hold it back.”
In an appeal that sounded more like Oprah Winfrey than Wyatt Earp, Baca urged the inmates to open up to him, and at the same time ordered his jail commanders to take note.
The session, which was opened up to The Times and a local TV station, offered a candid glimpse into the living conditions of jail inmates. The move also seemed to be an effort to show that the Sheriff’s Department is transparent, can fix its own problems and hears out its inmates. (Reporters were permitted to hear the prisoners speak but could not interview them individually or ask their names.)
“Now I wanna get real,” Baca told the scrub-suited prisoners. “Any of you feel depressed when you’re in here? … Any of you ever sometimes feel anxiety when you’re here? … Any of you ever feel a little stress?”
The floodgates opened.
“I’ve got my bone sticking out right here — you can see it at my shoulder,” said one inmate who wore a sling.
“That’s not good,” Baca said, as he peered at the wound.
One inmate said he needed a scan to look at his cancer right away.
“I’m gonna get you that scan,” Baca shot back.
Another complainant said it took three to four weeks to be seen for medical attention and said he’d heard one deputy accuse an inmate of faking an illness. “Deputies … aren’t exactly RNs,” he told Baca.
“You’re right,” the sheriff replied.
“We only shower once a week,” objected another prisoner. “Sometimes they cut off our hot water for three to four weeks.”
“That’s not right,” Baca said. “Anybody else on these points? We’re getting worked up now.”
Inmates complained about the lack of a school program on the third floor, leaving inmates locked up for 24 hours a day. “That gives you a lot of stress and depression.… People get angry and that’s when violence comes out,” Baca was told. “Fix that,” Baca told his commanders.
“Why can’t we get books?” complained another, who said he was a college graduate but was looking at a life term in prison. “And when we do get books, we get them ripped in half.”
One inmate complained that his personal property would go missing after jail cell searches.
“I’m trying to get them away from the idea of mishandling your personal things,” Baca said.
“Just treat us with a little respect. We are thrown in a place where we don’t have much,” one inmate said.
At one point, seeking to calm a 19-year-old inmate upset at the 15-minute length of family visits, Baca offered a story about how to cope with that loneliness. He said that when he grew up, he didn’t feel a sense of love from his family.
“I had a choice. I could go looking for love. Or I could just give it. I learned a long time ago, if you can’t get it, just give it. And in giving it, you get it,” Baca said. “Everyone in this room right now can be a beacon of love.”
One inmate was suspicious about whether Saturday’s session would translate to real change, considering the pending influx of felons who will stay at county jails instead of heading to state prisons because of overcrowding at the state level.
“Sir, if you want to … talk about bettering our situation, then put it into action. It’s not in our control,” the inmate said. “We don’t have nothing else to say. Get it done, sir. Get it done.”
By the end of the hour-and-a-half session, Baca was taking down complaints like a seasoned, empathetic politician — saying that, yes, the inmate with a broken arm would get medical attention right away; and that, yes, another inmate should get parent counseling right away so child welfare officials don’t take his children from him; and that, yes, a shoeless detainee should get a pair of shoes.
“You better be writing this down, brother,” he told his jail commanders at one point. “That’s why we’re here — the more we are understanding what you say, we can do something for you.”
Baca’s goal, he said after the session, was to show by example that his deputies needed to be listening to their inmates and helping them. He said he would return to Men’s Central Jail next Saturday to continue the dialogue, and would hold similar gatherings in other county jails.
“Some deputies are not getting it. And it didn’t take the ACLU or anyone else to tell me that,” Baca said in an interview. He said deputies who weren’t performing well “shouldn’t be in the jail. Because here in the jail, you have to be at the best you can possibly be to make this organization more effective. And we’re not there yet….”
“Certain people aren’t doing their best, and we have to help ferret them out of the system,” Baca said.