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Criminal Justice

ACLU Urges Court To Force Changes In ‘Abysmal’ Conditions At LA Inmate Reception Center

A room with white and green walls and bright lights is crowded with men whose faces are obscured in blue jail uniforms. Some are sleeping on the floor wrapped in blue blankets. Others are sleeping upright in chairs.
A photo from the ACLU court filing shows incarcerated people sleeping upright in chairs or on the floor at the Inmate Reception Center in downtown L.A.
(Courtesy ACLU)
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Citing a litany of abuses, including the shackling of detainees with serious mental illness to chairs “for days at a time,” the ACLU is asking a federal court to order immediate improvements in the “abysmal” conditions at Los Angeles’ Inmate Reception Center.

The ACLU of Southern California and the group’s National Prison Project are asking the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to issue a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order directing L.A. County to “limit custody at the IRC to 24 hours at most and to improve conditions so they meet minimum standards.”

Citing the pending litigation, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the jail, and the County CEO's office declined to comment.

The CEO's office did issue a statement touting its investments in efforts to close Men's Central Jail, "provide alternatives to incarceration, and bring to life the [county's] Care First[,] Jails Last vision."

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The Inmate Reception Center holds newly detained people as they await processing.

Allegations Of Shocking Conditions

The ACLU said its attorneys who recently visited the area discovered "shocking conditions," including:

  • “People with serious mental illness chained to chairs for days at a time, where they sleep sitting up.” 
  • “Dozens of people crammed together, sleeping head-to-foot on the hard concrete floor.”
  • “People defecating in trash cans and urinating on the floor or in empty food containers in shared spaces.”
  • “Unhygienic conditions, including floors littered with trash, overflowing sinks and toilets, no access to showers or clean clothes for days, and lack of adequate access to drinking water and food.”
  • “Failure to provide adequate health care, including failure to provide people with serious mental illness or chronic medical conditions their medications, or to provide care to people dangerously detoxing from drugs and alcohol.”

At least two people have died at the IRC this year, according to the ACLU, which said most recently a 72-year-old man died in June after being held there for two days without receiving a medical evaluation.

What The Inspector General Found

The L.A. County Office of the Inspector General recently published a report corroborating the ACLU’s observations of overcrowding and inhumane conditions at the IRC.

ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Melissa Camacho-Cheung said people need to know about what she called “human rights violations happening in their backyard.”

“We hear a lot about Rikers Island, but we have IRC. People are dying in the L.A. County jails. People are dying in IRC,” she said.

A room with white walls, windows and a grey concrete floor where dark-skinned men are wearing blue jail outfits and sleeping on brown benches or on the concrete floor.
A photo from the ACLU court filing shows incarcerated men sleeping on benches and on the concrete floor at the Inmate Reception Center in downtown L.A.
(ACLU)
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“It’s important to know that this is happening with our tax dollars, in our county, on our watch.”

“The county has been aware of the dire situation of the IRC all summer,” Camacho-Cheung told LAist. “It’s a crisis. It’s a humanitarian crisis. I certainly hope that now that there’s the threat of court involvement, that the county will be forced to respond and act quickly, and treat this like the emergency that it is.”

Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project, called L.A. County’s overall jail system “a national disgrace.” Kendrick said in a press release:

“For almost 50 years, the jail has been under court oversight to provide the most basic minimum standards of sanitation, health care, and human decency to people detained there. Enough is enough.”

The ACLU’s filing cited LAist’s reporting on conditions inside the jails, including Tuesday’s story on flooding inside the Twin Towers Correctional Facility that damaged elevators and prevented incarcerated people from going to court and seeing their families.

Little Progress By County Leaders

In a memorandum in support of the filing, the ACLU also pointed the finger squarely at the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

“County leaders fail to put their money where their mouths are, and fund community alternatives to incarceration at a level necessary to meaningfully alleviate the crush of people with acute mental illness in the Jail,” the memorandum said.

Supervisors passed the ambitious Care First, Jails Last funding plan in 2021, approving nearly half a billion dollars to explore alternatives to incarceration and jail reform efforts.

The board also committed to closing the dilapidated Men’s Central Jail, redistributing the population either to other jails or to mental health treatment facilities.

It’s important to know that this is happening with our tax dollars, in our county, on our watch.
— Melissa Camacho-Cheung, ACLU senior staff attorney

But little progress has been made towards carrying out the plan to close Men’s Central Jail, and jail reform advocates and civil rights organizations such as the ACLU say the county needs to spend more to implement meaningful change.

LAist reached out to all five county supervisors for comment on the ACLU’s emergency filing. L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl declined to comment, citing pending litigation. Supervisor Hilda Solis also declined to comment.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger faulted her fellow supervisors for voting to close Men’s Central Jail “without a replacement plan … I believe the conditions at the Inmate Reception Center are a direct result of that policy direction and a void it has created.”

Supervisors Holly Mitchell and Janice Hahn did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

Decades of Chaos

An incarcerated man whose face is obscured in a white t shirt and blue pants is curled up sleeping underneath a metal jail interview booth with green walls next to a metal stool.
A photo from the ACLU court filing shows an incarcerated person curled up sleeping under an interview booth in the Inmate Reception Center in downtown L.A.
(Courtesy ACLU)

The county jail system has been the subject of five decades of lawsuits alleging unconstitutional and inhumane conditions.

In 2015, the county signed an agreement promising to improve medical care and reduce the use of force — particularly against incarcerated people with mental illnesses. A judge said the county remains far from compliant and has given it until 2024 to fall into line.

In May, an LAist investigation found some current and former medical staff members described a working environment in the jails that is dysfunctional, abusive and detrimental to providing health care. One county health care worker called the situation in the jails a daily “human rights disaster.”

In January, we reported that deputies at Twin Towers were flouting COVID-19 regulations and spreading lies about vaccines. Sheriff Villanueva called the story “false,” while the Civilian Oversight Commission and the Department of Health Services (which oversees Correctional Health Services) said they were looking into the matter.

This story was updated at 5:40 p.m. on Sept. 8, 2022 to include the statement from the County CEO's office.

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.