ACLU asks judge to hold sheriff and supervisors in contempt over jail conditions

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ACLU asks judge to hold sheriff and supervisors in contempt over jail conditions

The American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal judge Monday to find Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Robert Luna in contempt of court for failing to fix “appalling” conditions in local jails.

In a 27-page motion detailing the jails’ “systemic failures,” lawyers with the civil rights organization — which is representing inmates in a long-standing class-action lawsuit — accused the county of flouting court orders by chaining inmates to benches and gurneys for hours at a time, locking people in cells covered with trash and feces, and leaving them to sleep on crowded intake center floors with nothing but plastic bags to keep warm.

“We are treated like animals,” Lester Evans wrote in one of the nearly two dozen inmate declarations the ACLU filed along with their motion. “People shouldn’t live like this.”

The civil rights organization also asked U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson to sanction the county and levy fines for any future violations of court orders.

“After almost five decades of an endless cycle of promises followed by excuses and failures, and generations of class members enduring abysmal conditions, the time for talk is over,” the ACLU lawyers wrote.

The Sheriff’s Department did not immediately comment on the new filing, but at a recent Civilian Oversight Commission meeting, Luna said he felt “just sadness” after hearing reports of the mistreatment and poor conditions inside the jails.

“This shouldn’t be happening,” he said. “It’s not acceptable.”

Robert Dugdale, an attorney representing the county in the case, concurred.

“The county is doing everything in its power to solve this crisis, but it needs help from outside agencies to achieve the changes that are so urgently needed,” he said. “The county will seek the court’s assistance by reducing the number of people coming to jail simply because they can’t afford bail and to provide the sheriff greater release options to safely reduce the jail population.”

Meanwhile, Supervisor Kathryn Barger — the only member of the board who commented on the new filing — said that in order to improve conditions behind bars, the county needs to invest in a long-term solution to replace Men’s Central Jail

“Our incarceration model is antiquated and needs to be replaced with a state-of-the-art facility staffed with quality professionals who can provide vital substance abuse and mental health treatment,” she said. “This is the direction that will lead us to a more humane environment for all those in our justice system who cannot be diverted.”

Monday’s motion is the latest legal maneuver in a class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1975, alleging that conditions in the county’s jails violated the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The case went to trial, and eventually a federal judge ordered a series of improvements. But in the nearly five decades since the case began, the county has never fully fixed the problems.

Last year, conditions grew particularly bad in the Inmate Reception Center, where men who’ve just been arrested are sent for booking. Most of the inmates there have not yet been convicted of a crime, and the facility isn’t intended to hold people for extended periods.

Detainees said in sworn statements that they were denied clean water, working toilets, regular showers and adequate food. Photos taken by the ACLU showed men sleeping on floors amid filth and garbage. The group’s lawyers told the court that inmates with severe mental illnesses were often chained to benches for days at a time instead of being given the medications they needed.

After a hearing in September, Pregerson ordered the jail to make modest improvements, such as no longer chaining mentally ill people to benches for more than four hours, no longer leaving inmates in areas without drinking water or working toilets and no longer keeping people in the Inmate Reception Center for more than a day.

The ACLU alleges that the county has violated several key pieces of that order.

Jail logs show that, over a seven-week period at the start of this year, more than 360 people were chained to reception center benches for longer than the permitted four hours. On top of that, oversight officials reported this month that jail staff have begun sidestepping the court’s order by tethering people to gurneys instead of chaining them to benches, a practice that Inspector General Max Huntsman said violates the department’s own policies and obscures the problem.

“The problem that used to exist in IRC in view of the court has now been moved into the shadows,” Huntsman told the Civilian Oversight Commission during its Feb. 16 meeting. “The only thing that can be done to change the conditions in the jail is reduce the population. We have a constitutional obligation to do it immediately, and we have a legal mechanism to do it.”

At the same time, jail staff have been sidestepping the court’s 24-hour time limit for keeping people in the reception center by creating “overflow” reception areas scattered throughout Men’s Central Jail, where ACLU attorneys allege the conditions are “nearly as dismal” as in the reception center but harder for lawyers to track.

But the most graphic portions of Monday’s filing are those detailing the county’s failure to meet basic hygiene requirements.

“It is filthy here,” wrote Reggie Chandler, a man incarcerated in the reception center. “There is feces on the walls. I try to keep my cell clean, but they do not give me gloves. The toilet was caked up with s— when I got to my cell and I have to use a bread wrapper and pair of boxers to clean it up. There was also food and maybe s— on the light fixture.”

Other detainees offered similarly harrowing descriptions. One man said he was fed only once in several days and did not have access to water. Others said they were often left hungry and forced to skip meals. One detainee recounted going for a week with no access to a shower, and others described cells covered with mold and trash.

Many said they were always cold and unable to get blankets or pillows, even when the temperature dipped below freezing. One man recounted watching those around him “covering themselves with plastic bags for warmth.”

“I asked for blankets but I was told I couldn’t have one because there are not enough,” Elder Escobar wrote. “At one point I had a plastic bag so I could sit on it while I sat on the floor because the floor is dirty. They took the plastic bag away as well.”

When a reporter visited the jail this month, several cells were littered with garbage, and an overflowing trash can sat in the middle of one hallway. Though there was only one person chained to a bench in the reception center, another man there motioned to indicate that he was hungry and needed food.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether any of the inmates were able to get their medications, but the ACLU flagged that as another area of concern, alleging that severely mentally ill detainees frequently wait weeks or months for much-needed treatment.

Before he got arrested, Chandler was taking psychiatric medication, which he told the court he needed to “stop the voices.” After he got booked into jail in September, it took more than two months for him to get his medication again. “When I was off my meds I was hearing voices a lot,” he wrote. “I also got paranoid and felt like people were following me and taking information from my brain.”

The lawyers’ request to hold the county in contempt relates to only one of several long-standing lawsuits over poor care inside the L.A. jails. A second case — also in Pregerson’s court — centers on problems with excessive use of force, and a third relates to concerns raised by the U.S. Department of Justice about persistently bad mental health care in the county jails.

This month, The Times reported that four U.S. senators penned a fiery letter to the Justice Department about that case, calling the conditions inside the Los Angeles jails a “humanitarian crisis” and questioning why years of federal monitoring have not produced noticeable improvements.

At the next status conference for the case, Pregerson seemed to suggest the Justice Department should ask to hold the county in contempt, but now it seems the ACLU has beat the department to it. The civil rights organization asked the judge to grant its request at a hearing next month in federal court.