By: Emilie St. John
Last year four US Senators penned a letter to Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland, described the conditions in L.A. County’s jails as a “humanitarian crisis” and “appalling.”
Two of the Senators are from California. One of them has its own staff questioning their mental capacity (fitness) to continue doing the job and the other two don’t live anywhere near Los Angeles.
Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — also raised concerns about jails in New York City and Miami, which are under federal monitoring as well. In lockups in all three cities, conditions “appear to have grown worse,” the senators said.
Related: LA County supervisors scrap $1.7 billion contract to replace jail: ‘It’s time to do the right thing’
What their letter failed to point out was the County Board of Supervisors canceling a contract in 2019 to rebuild the jails which would have alleviated these problems.
The board had no logical reason to cancel the contract other than former Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s desire to do his job and investigate allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse in the County’s process for awarding contracts.
Anyone who has had the unfortunate pleasure of being held inside the County jail can attest to its archaic conditions and outdated. Villanueva acknowledged it too.
Deputies are allowed limited tools to address an inmate population that outnumbers them and at times uses force against them. Deputies are faced with the choice of either defending themselves are ending up hurt. Staff in the County’s Probation Department are facing similar conditions with probation officers having broken limbs and being attacked as the County moves to eliminate pepper spray from juvenile camps and detention centers.
According to Villanueva, in 2013, force inside the jails was at a reasonable level, and the numbers for deputy force and inmate force were in close correlation. When inmates used force, deputies used force back. All was in balance.
But after 2013, said the sheriff, force began to rise, and kept rising stratospherically due to what he said were a series of ill-thought-out jail reforms.
He pointed to the fact that 2013 was the year when former sheriff Lee Baca hired Terri McDonald to take over the department’s custody division, and McDonnell, he said, put into place a grand “social experiment,” after which time “no one paid attention to the outcomes” that all this experimenting wrought.
As Villanueva explained it, the “social experiment,” along with additional policy changes he said were instituted in 2015 by then newly elected sheriff Jim McDonnell, caused violence to skyrocket, precipitating a 99 percent rise in force by deputies on inmates, between the years of 2013 and 2018, and a staggering 204 percent increase of violence by inmates on deputies during that same period—with inmate on inmate violence, also on the rise.Witness LA
“Someone literally thought it was a good idea to tell the deputies to put their hands in their pockets,” said Villanueva. “And it backfired massively.”
Meanwhile, the department wasn’t “measuring what’s important,” said Villanueva, “which is the safety of the jails.”
Villanueva said under his predecessor’s administration, “staff weren’t allowed to defend themselves.” And if they did defend themselves, “it would be at the cost of their careers.” Probation officers find themselves facing the same directives.
The dangerous conditions in the jails are being allowed to fester by the Board of Supervisors who appear to be more concerned about pleasing critics than supporting their own employees working in a safe environment.
To blame the federal government is nonsense. To have this letter signed off by a mentally decaying woman is highly disingenuous and others who live over 3,000 miles away do little to address the problem if the fingers aren’t being pointed at what the County is doing to impede the process of restoring a safe jail environment for the inmates and the staff begins with finding out why the contract to rebuild the jails was canceled.
The former County Board Supervisor leading the charge on the rebuild, Mark Ridley-Thomas, is awaiting the start of his federal trial in three weeks to answer to allegations of trading campaign donations for County contracts.
Were there nefarious actions attached to the awarding of the jail contract as it was alleged with a County contract for a sexual harassment abuse hotline for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Authority?
Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, is calling for every jail to have independent oversight to know the ways the jails are failing.
In Los Angeles County, former County prosecutor Max Huntsman was given the prestigious title of “Inspector General” in late 2013 a month after former Sheriff Jim McDonnell secured the seat. Huntsman’s job it is to keep the Board of Supervisors apprised of the conditions in the department.
There are no easily accessible comments from Huntsman going on the record against the Board canceling the nearly $2 billion contract to rebuild Men’s Central Jail especially if he had access to the facilities under McDonnell.
He wouldn’t begin to clash with Villanueva until nearly eight years later.
The problem with LA County jails is the Board member’s failure to allow people to do the job they’re hired to do and in turn, do the job voters asked them to do which is provide safe working conditions for the countless number of union employees and ensure the safety of those in custody by having facilities conducive to such environments.
Appointments have consequences meaning Huntsman can’t speak freely on what he sees as problems or he would most likely no longer be the Inspector General.
Newly elected Sheriff Robert Luna went on a radio interview on Feb. 2 and said his top priorities are restoring public trust and addressing the issues in the jails.
Deputy gangs are now an afterthought. I wonder why?
Read the full article on the Senator’s letter here.