After years of scandal, L.A. jails get federal oversight, sweeping reforms
Capping years of scandal, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has agreed to federal oversight of its jail system in an effort to end abuse of inmates by sheriff’s deputies and to improve chronically poor treatment of mentally ill inmates.
The agreement announced Wednesday establishes an independent monitor, overseen by a federal judge, who will make sure the reforms are carried out. Richard Drooyan, a former Los Angeles Police Commission president who served on a blue-ribbon commission that was highly critical of Sheriff’s Department operations, was appointed as the monitor.
The move comes as federal prosecutors continue to pursue criminal charges against several sheriff’s officials, including the department’s former second-in-command — Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Prosecutors already have won convictions against deputies accused of abusing inmates or of obstructing federal investigators looking into jail violence.
Last June, federal officials stated their intent to seek the agreement in a strongly worded report that described a spike in jail suicides, many of which they termed “preventable.”
Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who took office in December and previously served on a citizens’ commission on jail violence, says he welcomes federal oversight of the nation’s largest county jail system. Many of the reforms required by the settlement are completed or well underway, he said.
“This agreement presents an opportunity to close the book on the challenges of the past and to write a new chapter in the treatment and care of those suffering from mental illness who end up in our jails and will eventually return to our community,” McDonnell said.
The agreement requires more training for deputies and supervisors as well as greater scrutiny of jail operations. Mentally ill inmates will get more time out of their cells and will be checked on more often.
County officials say they are pleased with the agreement and will ensure that the reforms are funded. But they note that the condition of the aging, dilapidated Men’s Central Jail makes it difficult to implement some of the reforms, which include measures directed at the cleanliness of cells, pest control and the removal of items in cells that could be used to commit suicide.
About 20% of the 17,000 or so inmates in the county jails are classified as mentally ill.
Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who is in charge of the county jails, said the agreement couldn’t be completely fulfilled until Men’s Central Jail is replaced with a new facility focused on mental health and substance-abuse treatment.
The Board of Supervisors has delayed a plan to build a 4,860-bed jail to take another look at its size and whether more treatment programs outside the jail could reduce the need for beds.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who joined the board in December, said the jail would be replaced and the main issue is how many beds it will contain.
“You can’t do all the things that are required in that broken-down facility,” Kuehl said.
The 58-page settlement agreement details a wide array of changes to improve conditions for inmates with mental illnesses.
Under the deal, jailers will receive revamped training on how to handle mentally ill inmates, including how to identify warning signs of suicide and how to respond to an inmate who has attempted suicide.
The agreement also spells out changes to how inmates are evaluated when they are booked into jail and how those suspected of serious mental illness should be kept safe until they are seen by a mental health professional. The agreement specifies how deputies must handle mentally ill inmates, including when inmates may be physically restrained, where they can be housed and how frequently they should be checked on.
In addition, the plan spells out the process for releasing mentally ill inmates from jail to make sure they leave with a supply of needed medications and have access to psychological services.
The Sheriff’s Department also agreed to revise policies on using force against inmates — changes that federal officials said “should significantly reduce the use of excessive force, with added protections for use of force against prisoners with mental illness.”
The agreement extends to the entire county system a use-of-force settlement reached by the American Civil Liberties Union for downtown jails, including Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers.
McDonnell says the price tag of the reforms is unknown, noting that county officials are now under pressure to come up with the money.
“When you look at anything in the county, because of the scale of it, everything is very expensive,” McDonnell said. “When you do the cost-benefit, you can’t put a price on the humane treatment of those in our charge.”
Supervisor Don Knabe says the board has already dedicated millions of dollars to fixing the jails — including money for hundreds of additional jail employees.
“We know our issues are significant in trying to reform this whole system,” Knabe said. “It’s going to take more money, and we’ll have to work hard to find those dollars.”
Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California, generally praised the agreement, saying it “thoroughly addressed many of the issues” related to care for the mentally ill.
But the county should have improved the jails years ago, he said.
Federal involvement in L.A. County jails dates to 1997, when the U.S. Justice Department issued a set of recommendations for improving mental health care. Since 2002, a memorandum of agreement has required federal officials to visit the jails and issue progress reports every six months. Last year, the Department of Justice accused jail officials of doing little to address jail suicides even after the number more than doubled, from four in 2012 to 10 the following year.
Jail cells were “dimly lit, vermin-infested, noisy, unsanitary, cramped and crowded,” exacerbating prisoners’ mental distress, federal officials said in the June 2014 report.
Some inmates with long histories of mental illness were not assigned to mental health housing and later killed themselves, the report said. Safety checks were not conducted often enough, and one mentally ill inmate had not been checked on for hours when he hanged himself, the report said.
The number of suicides went back down in 2014, to five.
The Sheriff’s Department is also operating under a court-enforceable settlement reached in April with the federal government over its street patrol operations in the Antelope Valley, where deputies allegedly targeted blacks and Latinos for harsh treatment.
In May, Tanaka, once the agency’s second-highest-ranking figure, and now-retired Capt. William “Tom” Carey were charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice on allegations of concealing the whereabouts of an inmate who was working as an FBI informant. They have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Eileen Decker, the newly appointed U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, said the settlement would “usher in a new era” for the L.A. County jails.
“This agreement will serve as a road map for restoring public trust and confidence in the county jail system and in the dedicated public servants who work there every day to provide essential services, and ensure both the safety of the prisoners and the staff
who work there,” Decker said.
Follow @cindychang for more news about L.A. County criminal justice.
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