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Criminal Justice

ACLU Asks Judge To Hold LA County In Contempt For 'Flagrant Violations' Of Jail Order

We're looking at the entrance to the downtown jail public lobby and inmate reception center. A concrete beige building faces us, with glass windows framed with red. The door has white signs like "put on your mask". The building is part of a large complex -- we can see other beige buildings beyond the reception center. A palm tree is to the right of the building, and there are green grass and shrubs.
The Inmate Reception Center in downtown L.A.
(Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)
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The ACLU is asking a federal judge to find Los Angeles County in contempt of his earlier ruling mandating improvements in the handling of people at the Inmate Reception Center.

In a motion the civil rights group filed Monday, the ACLU told Judge Dean Pregerson that “the evidence indisputably shows the IRC yet again has long delays in processing and intake of detainees, and people continue to suffer serious deprivations while in appalling conditions.” It added, “the law is clear that ‘trying’ is not enough, nor is it a license to ignore valid court orders.”

The ACLU said it found the county is still not providing adequate access to medications and is chaining people to objects, and is holding people in the IRC more than 24 hours, all of which would violate Pregerson’s order from last year.

We have reached out to the Sheriff's Department, which runs the county's jails, for comment.

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Pregerson issued his order in response to an emergency court filing about the “abysmal” conditions at the Inmate Reception Center. The group cited a litany of abuses, including the shackling of detainees with serious mental illness to chairs “for days at a time.”

But problems have persisted.

Inspector General Max Huntsman told the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission on Feb. 15 that inspections found incarcerated people are still being tied to objects like gurneys during the intake process at the IRC.

“As long as we have our jails overcrowded, we will see IRC continue to be shut down repeatedly, we will continue to see people's constitutional rights violated, either in the IRC or elsewhere, simply because we lack the capacity to care for the number of people we have in our jails now,” he said.

Responding to the issues raised by Huntsman and the ACLU, Sheriff Robert Luna told the commission, “that is not acceptable,” adding that his department needs to take “immediate corrective action.”

More details from the filing

The ACLU’s new court filing recounts interviews with incarcerated people and a defense attorney “detailing her clients’ mental decompensation due to failures in the IRC intake process.”

The organization lists several major concerns:

  • The County is still holding people for too long in the IRC and holding cells. Over a roughly three-month period, the ACLU found nearly 80% of people in the IRC were there for more than 24 hours. A man named John Mayes told the group he slept for two days in the IRC “on the floor or in broken chairs, without a blanket, when it was very cold.” 
  • People are not being properly accounted for in IRC tracking data because they are being moved to “IRC overflow” areas in the Men’s Central Jail. 
  • Pregerson’s order said people cannot be chained to an object for more than four hours at a time. But more than 300 people this year were chained to an object for more than four hours, according to jail data. One person in January allegedly was chained to the IRC’s front bench for more than 29 hours. 

The ACLU alleges that to get around the four-hour limit at the IRC, jail staff are “tethering” people with mental health issues with restraints to gurneys in the hallways of Men’s Central Jail.
Incarcerated people also told the ACLU they were not getting timely access to medical and mental health care, including medications, in the IRC. For example, people who were prescribed psychiatric medication prior to being incarcerated said they’re not getting them.

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A man named Raymond Crowley said he was arrested on Nov. 10 and did not get his previously prescribed medication for schizophrenia and another condition until after Christmas. As a result, he was “hearing voices, and seeing faces in my food and in the wall and he began to shake and have numbness in his leg,” the court filing said.

The ACLU also called for more diversion efforts — the housing program through the Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) does not have enough beds to meet the demand.

After hitting its initial cap last year, the program was expanded slightly with another $30 million investment last summer.

Public defender Meredith Gallen told the ACLU that attorneys now submit potential clients into an ODR lottery system with “almost no chance of success.”

What the ACLU wants

The ACLU will ask the court to find the county in civil contempt and proposes fines via a schedule ranging from $250 to $10,000 depending on the violation.

The money, the ACLU says, “should allocate the funds to pay for increased beds in evidence-based alternatives to incarceration such as the ODR program,” or to benefit members of the class-action lawsuit.

The county must also address overcrowding, the rights group says. “The only way the IRC problem can be fixed is by dramatically decreasing the population of the total jail population, and we just haven't seen moves in that direction,” Melissa Camacho-Cheung, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU, told LAist on Monday.

The ACLU’s filing asks for a hearing on March 20.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.

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