U.S. Judge Calls for L.A. Jail Reforms

Times Staff Writer

Declaring that Los Angeles County officials have been housing inmates in ways “not consistent with basic human values,” a federal judge Thursday called for speedy reforms at the cramped and crowded Men’s Central Jail.

One day after touring the downtown Los Angeles facility, U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson said he was appalled to find six inmates crammed into cells intended to house only three and kept there for days at a time with no opportunity to exercise or even stretch their legs.

“There is not enough room for all six inmates to stand up or take a pace or two,” Pregerson said. “There is not enough room to do push-ups or do anything but lay in their bunks and sleep. That is not a situation that I think should be permitted to exist in the future.”

Pregerson, who is presiding over a long-standing federal suit over jail conditions, was asked by the American Civil Liberties Union to step in after a series of deadly riots earlier this year in several Los Angeles County jail facilities. He agreed Thursday to oversee a collaborative effort by the ACLU and Sheriff Lee Baca to make improvements. He directed both sides to report back in two weeks.

The judge’s participation could give new impetus to efforts to improve the treatment of prisoners across what is the nation’s largest jail system, holding an average of 18,000 inmates a day. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky has suggested that the county place a bond measure on the November ballot to raise up to $500 million for jail improvements, but his board colleagues have as yet taken no action. Neither Yaroslavsky nor Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who serves as chairman of the board, returned calls seeking comment.

“We do appreciate the judge’s comments and the judge’s concern to tour the jail,” Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore said Thursday. “It’s not a revelation to us that Men’s Central Jail is not the best possible environment in our jail system.”

Baca has been struggling to deal with jail violence and a lack of staffing that has prompted him to release more than 150,000 inmates early since mid-2002, many of them after they had served less than a tenth of their original sentences. Sheriff’s officials have long said that the jail, which was built more than 40 years ago, was not intended to house the serious felons it does today. The best solution, but one county officials say they cannot afford, would be to tear down the jail and build a new one.

“We’re really encouraged. This is a judge who now has first-hand knowledge of L.A.'s ‘Dante’s Inferno.’ This is a facility that doesn’t meet civilized standards,” ACLU lawyer Mark Rosenbaum said.

With nearly 6,000 inmates — some of whom are only awaiting trial — the Men’s Central Jail is also one of the nation’s most violent facilities. Since 2003, nine inmates have been killed in the jail. Last year, the Sheriff’s Department ended a long-standing practice of forcing inmates to sleep on mattresses on the floor because of overcrowding. A class-action lawsuit seeking damages for that practice is pending.

Pregerson spent three hours touring the jail Wednesday and said he came away concerned about the amount of time inmates spend locked in their cells without daylight or recreation. Unlike many other jail facilities, Men’s Central Jail has no day rooms where inmates can gather to watch television or socialize.

Inmates are required by law to have about three hours of recreation time per week. At the Men’s Central Jail, inmates often get those three hours in one day, so they spend as many as six consecutive days locked in their cells, where they leave only to attend court, visit the doctor or go to religious services.

“That is just simply not consistent with basic values,” Pregerson said.

Baca is already taking steps that officials hope will improve jail conditions. Violent inmates are being moved out of Men’s Central Jail and into the nearby and newer Twin Towers facility, a spokesman said Thursday. In recent weeks the department has moved about 200 inmates.

At the same time, the sheriff has had trouble filling guard jobs at the jails: The department is about 1,000 deputies short of its budgeted staffing level but is in the midst of a recruitment effort that should allow it to open more space at Twin Towers, Whitmore said.

Sheriff’s Cmdr. Dennis Conte, who oversees the Men’s Central Jail, said he was working on a proposal that would allow the department to open day rooms to address some of Pregerson’s concerns.

“One of the comments Judge Pregerson made during his tour was about the absence of televisions or the opportunity for inmates to get out of cells. We took that to heart and want to do something about it,” Conte said.

The proposal would not allow the department to reduce the ratio of inmates per cell. The facility has about 200 three-man cells holding six inmates each, and 200 two-man cells each holding four. The rest of the inmates are housed in dormitories or in 1,000 one-man cells.

“Nobody is asking for a Beverly Hills spa,” Rosenbaum said. “But sticking six individuals into a space designed for three and locking them down 24 hours a day is a danger to the inmates and to the staff.”