LA's Sheriff Says Jail Reform Has Failed. We Went Inside To Find Out

The Men's Central Jail is seen in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 10, 2006. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva says reforms designed to reduce violence by deputies in the jails are a failed "social experiment." He claims attacks on guards are up, and his deputies feel the new rules keep them from fully defending themselves. Villanueva has argued his deputies need a freer hand to use force.

That alarms watchdogs, who say the sheriff is using faulty statistics and who argue that the reforms have greatly improved the situation in the lockups. They worry he might try to undo policies implemented four years ago after the U.S. Justice Department, the ACLU and a blue ribbon commission found a pattern of deputy brutality within a culture of impunity.

The reforms included a ban on steel-toed boots and metal flashlights that some deputies used to inflict pain. Use of force policies were re-written, deputies were re-trained, and every use of force - even if it's grabbing an inmate's arm - must be documented.

Supervising sergeants were added to each floor of the jails. To keep everyone honest, the department was forced to install hundreds of cameras. Officials placed boxes with complaint forms on each floor along with iPads for those who preferred to highlight a problem that way.

So what is happening in the jails? We decided to take a closer look.

"DEPUTIES ARE ... WAY DIFFERENT"

The worst of the beatings occurred in Twin Towers and the dilapidated Men's Central Jail next door. Both sit near Union Station, adjacent to Chinatown.

On a tour of the more than 50-year-old Men's Central, the captain in charge points out how the cells sit in long rows and it's impossible to see what's happening in a cell unless you're standing directly in front of it.

"It's outdated and dangerous," Capt. Jason Wolak said. Most jails are designed as pods where deputies can see almost everything.

We're on the second floor, known as the 2,000 floor. This was home to the "2,000 Boys," a clique of deputies known to mete out particularly harsh beatings for as little as a disrespectful look from an inmate.

We walk down a row of 25 cells. I stop to talk to one inmate who asks to remain anonymous. He said he's been in and out of jail a lot and Men's Central is a lot less violent now.

"Deputies here are being way different, man," he said.

I ask how deputies used to treat inmates.

"Whoa, let them tell you!" he said, laughing nervously. "I mean, I don't want to say nothing."

There are plenty of complaints on the row - about things like showers not working, and not enough recreational time - but not about guards getting violent. Still, many inmates are careful about how they talk about their guards.

There's no question serious force by deputies has dropped significantly in recent years, although the reliable data only dates to 2017, said Richard Drooyan, the federal monitor who oversees the reforms.

Nevertheless, Villanueva uses data going back to 2013. He claims inmate attacks on deputies jumped more than 200 percent over a five-year period ending in 2018, and that inmate-on-inmate attacks rose about 30 percent during the same period.

Drooyan and the county's inspector general say Villanueva's statistics are unreliable. They say the reporting of data — and the systems to record that data — have changed significantly in recent years, making the sheriff's comparisons apples to oranges.

Villanueva has stood his ground, insisting that his statistics are reliable.

The sheriff also claimed in recent weeks that senior officials had given deputies written orders not to use force to defend themselves or to report attacks known as gassings, when inmates fling urine or feces at deputies.

Drooyan in turn requested copies of the directives. On Thursday, he told LAist in an email that "the Sheriff's Department informed me that there had been a 'miscommunication amongst staff' and those directives do not exist."

"WE NEED TO TAKE BACK OUR JAILS"

But the sheriff's message resonates with at least some deputies in the jails.

One veteran sergeant in Men's Central endorses Villanueva's position.

The sergeant, who's worked the jails for five years and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation from her superiors, expresses nostalgia for the days when guards had a freer hand.

"We used to handle business differently back then," she said. "There were less restrictions on our part."

The reforms make deputies hesitate in dangerous situations, she said. "You can protect yourself but it's frowned upon sometimes."

Inmates have too much power now, said the sergeant. Deputies can deny them privileges when they violate rules, but that's about it, she said.

So when Villanueva says the reforms went too far, she agrees "100 percent. We need to take back our jails."

The sergeant adds she's noticed morale among jail deputies has been higher in the wake of the sheriff's comments.

"I think the point she's trying to make is, they don't want the deputies to make a mistake and be second guessed," Capt. Wolak said. "I think that's where the disconnect is."

"THIS IS A DANGEROUS PLACE"

Asked about the dispute over Villanueva's statistics, Wolak is careful not to contradict his sheriff.

"I'm just not familiar with all the data," he said. "I just know this is a dangerous place. And it's always been a dangerous place."

One of the longstanding challenges in the jails is that the guards are young, said Esther Lim, who just finished an eight-year stint as the ACLU's court-appointed jail monitor. The department assigns all new deputies to the jails for their first couple of years.

"You look at them and you go, 'Oh wow, completely inexperienced, sometimes with very little education,'" said Lim, who's now monitor of New York city's prisons. "They may not have a lot of social skills."

And those guards are working in a lockup that now seeks to utilize social skills rather than brute force to maintain order.

The county plans to replace the aging Men's Central Jail with a mental health hospital. The county and sheriff have also agreed to improve care for inmates with mental illnesses.

Villanueva has been vague about what exactly he wants to change in the jails — at one point he suggested bringing back metal flashlights.

While watchdogs have expressed concern that the sheriff might try to unwind some of the reforms, Villanueva said in a statement this month that he will fully comply with them.

Villanueva had two other messages in his statement. He wants deputies to act within the law. But he also wants them to know they have the right to defend themselves.