Nearly two decades ago, my older brother Monte Cullors was incarcerated by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies at the Pitchess Detention Center, a county jail complex in Castaic. He emerged, in my family’s estimation, a brutalized man. It changed Monte’s life, and our family, forever. Certainly it’s one of the reasons I founded the advocacy group Dignity and Power Now in 2012 and co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013. It’s also why, this year, I’m pushing to get a critical jail reform measure on the November ballot.
Monte had just turned 20 and was already displaying signs of mental illness when, in August 1999, he took our mother’s car on a joy ride in the San Fernando Valley. After fleeing police, he was arrested on charges of evading an officer. The mistreatment he remembers took place while he was awaiting trial.
Monte was in a precarious mental state — he was diagnosed with schizoaffective and bipolar disorders while in jail — and he struck a deputy in the face when he was being transported after a psychiatric evaluation. Four or five more deputies showed up, Monte says, and he got a beating. (According to the deputies’ account in court records, Monte attacked one deputy and lunged at another who came to the first one’s aid.)
What might my brother’s story be like had L.A. County invested in his rehabilitation instead of in jails and prisons?
Monte claims he was choked and that he blacked out and woke up in a pool of blood. Abusive treatment continued, Monte says, when he was moved to the Twin Towers jail downtown.
My brother was ultimately convicted of battery on an officer and the original charge of evading police, and sentenced to 40 months in state prison. By the time he told the story of his treatment in jail to a lawyer, it was too late to sue.
The devastating truth is that there are many Montes in Los Angeles County. People like John Horton, who died in his cell in solitary confinement in 2009. (Officials said it was a suicide; his family maintains he was bludgeoned to death.) Or Juan Correa, who last fall was pepper sprayed after an altercation with another prisoner, according to authorities, and then “went into distress” in the shower. Paramedics pronounced him dead.
Because of neglect, betrayal and brutalization like this, a coalition of advocates formed in 2011 to demand the county fix the jails. We have made some headway. In 2016, after five years of steady activism — and two years after former L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca resigned amid a growing corruption scandal in the department — we were able to establish the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, a nine-member advisory board that holds monthly meetings and gives the public an opportunity to comment.
But there is much more work to do. Correa’s death last September was the second prisoner death in as many days. Only a few months earlier, four prisoners died over a nine-day period.
Los Angeles County residents can help jump-start another round of jail reform by supporting a proposed measure, the Reform Jails and Community Reinvestment Initiative. We’re now gathering signatures to get it onto the November ballot.
If approved by voters, the potential ballot measure would accomplish several key things. It would give the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission subpoena power to obtain documents, witness testimony and other information related to investigations of misconduct in the jails. (Oakland voters approved a similar ballot measure in 2016, creating a commission to oversee the city’s police department and giving it subpoena power.)
The measure would also task the commission with developing a plan to reduce the jail population and reallocate funds from the jail budget to community-based prevention and alternative-to-incarceration programs. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors so far has resisted this kind of reform; instead they are proceeding with a plan to invest $3.5 billion in new jails. The Reform Jails measure would stop further jail construction in its tracks.
It’s been nearly 20 years since my brother was first arrested and our family was stripped of our dignity. It is difficult for Monte to hold down a job. He has continued to struggle with mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder and has been in and out of psychiatric facilities. He served another prison term.
What might Monte’s — or John’s, or Juan’s — story be like had L.A. County invested in his rehabilitation instead of in jails and prisons? What if each of them had been given the opportunity to pay for their mistakes without paying with their health, their futures, and their lives in some cases?
We won’t ever know the answer those questions. But we can make sure the lives of others turn out differently. We can choose a different system. Sign a petition, and then show up at the polls on Nov. 6.
Patrisse Cullors is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and founder of the organization Dignity and Power Now. She co-wrote the New York Times bestseller “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.”