Los Angeles County sheriff may shut part of Men’s Central Jail

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Facing a federal investigation into allegations of brutality in his jails, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is considering a bold proposal to shutter a portion of the department’s most troubled lockup that has been plagued by inmate killings, excessive force by guards and poor supervision.

The plan would shift about 1,800 inmates, including many of the county’s most violent criminals, from the old section of Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, a sheriff’s jail commander said. The inmates would probably be moved to a newer facility in Lynwood that currently houses female inmates.

If adopted, the plan would bring significant changes to the way the nation’s largest jail system is run.

It would solve what has long been a major problem for the department: having the most violent inmates housed in an antiquated facility. Men’s Central is designed with long rows of cramped cells, rather than the more modern circular configuration that makes controlling inmates, supervising jailers and protecting employees significantly easier.

But closing the section of Men’s Central could have a significant side effect: reducing the number of total inmates the system can handle.

The Sheriff’s Department already releases some inmates early because of a lack of funding and is expected to receive thousands of new inmates under a plan that is sending offenders who previously landed in state prison to county jails. Cmdr. Jim Hellmold said it’s possible that the reduced capacity that could come with closing much of Men’s Central would require more low-risk inmates to be released on electronic monitoring.

The plan would also mark a shift in thinking by Baca, who has up to now talked about closing Men’s Central if the county gives him the money to build a new jail.

Hellmold, who is part of a sheriff’s task force reforming the jails, said Baca has ordered his staff to examine the logistics of clearing out Men’s Central’s “old side” but has not yet committed to any specific plan.

Baca’s spokesman, Steve Whitmore, said the sheriff intends to discuss the plan with members of the county Board of Supervisors before unveiling it publicly, perhaps in several weeks. Whitmore said sheriff’s officials hope any proposal they adopt will not result in more early releases.

With about 4,500 inmates, Men’s Central is touted by the Sheriff’s Department as the largest single jail facility in the world.

“Nightmarish to manage” is how the Board of Supervisors’ special counsel on law enforcement issues, Merrick Bobb, described the jail several years ago in a confidential report after a series of inmate-on-inmate killings in 2003 and 2004. He warned of the possibility of an inmate takeover that “would be nearly impossible to quell without the spilling of so much blood as to be morally, pragmatically, and politically indefensible.”

The plan that sheriff’s officials are now considering involves closing the jail’s older wing, which was built in 1963. The area has been the scene of some of the most frequent clashes between deputies and inmates.

The facility’s third floor — called the 3000 floor — houses some of the county’s most dangerous inmates, including killers and notorious gang leaders. Many face the possibility of a lifetime in prison and are known to fashion makeshift knives from toothbrushes and sharp spears from ripped magazines to attack fellow inmates or guards.

The Times reported last year that sheriff’s managers assigned some of their least experienced deputies to the third floor. While deputies at Men’s Central had 31 months of experience on average, those assigned to 3000 had only 20 months, according to 2009 sheriff’s memos. Some deputies were assigned to 3000 as rookies, one report said.

The 3000 floor saw more force incidents — 437 — than any other in Men’s Central from 2006 through 2010, department records show. The third floor drew public scrutiny in 2010 when The Times reported that a fight broke out at a department Christmas party between a group of deputies assigned to 3000 and other jailers. After the brawl, sheriff’s officials said deputies on the third floor had formed an aggressive clique whose members flashed gang-like three-finger hand signs.

Robert Olmsted, a retired sheriff’s commander who warned about deputy cliques and inmate abuse before he left the department in 2010, said the Lynwood jail’s design would make it easier for deputies to keep a close watch on high-security inmates. The jail’s cells were built around a security booth, giving deputies inside a good view of each cell. By contrast, deputies assigned to Men’s Central have to walk long rows to see what inmates are doing in their cells.

“It doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but the big question is how much bed space are you going to lose?” Olmsted said.

Whitmore said that if clearing out the old side of Men’s Central turns out to be unfeasible, one possibility would be moving the lower-security female inmates currently in Lynwood to the downtown jail.

Hellmold said Baca signaled his openness to moving inmates out of parts of Men’s Central in a meeting this week with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The organization has argued that the county incarcerates too many people and that some could await trial on home detention or serve their sentences outside jail.

The county has struggled for years to carry out other plans to improve jail operations, and it remains unclear whether Baca’s new concept will fare any better.

In 2006, the Board of Supervisors approved a $258-million proposal to reopen the Sybil Brand Institute for Women in Monterey Park and build new barracks for female inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic. The plan called for moving high-security male inmates to the Lynwood facility.

But the construction was never begun. The county is now considering whether to spend $1.4 billion on a state-of-the-art facility to replace Men’s Central. County supervisors have so far balked at the price tag.

In 2007, Baca championed a change in state law to allow him to put more offenders on home detention, reducing the number of serious criminals being released early. But once the law was changed, the plan stalled when jail managers discovered that the vast majority of inmates had serious or violent criminal histories that made them unsuitable for home release.

One factor that is different this time is that the jails are the subject of an FBI investigation into multiple allegations of brutality and other misconduct by sheriff’s deputies. The probe has already resulted in the bribery conviction of one deputy.