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Criminal Justice

Flooding Shuts Down Elevators in LA Jail, Delays Court Hearings And Visitation

Large letters embedded on a low concrete walls read Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Twin Towers Correctional Facility Inmate Reception Center Medical Services. Two large towers with all of the windows bricked over loom in the background
The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles .
(ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP)
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When one correctional health care worker returned to work a few days after a water line ruptured in four places at the Twin Towers jail, they described the damage done to the waxed floors as “like when you peel after a sun tan.”

Another health worker said they could hear water pouring down the elevator shaft while it was in use, and that the elevator doors weren’t always closing all the way.

Two separate flooding incidents in August at the troubled Twin Towers Correctional Facility damaged the facility's elevators, collapsed part of an office ceiling, and prevented incarcerated people from going to court and seeing family members.

That’s according to statements from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (which oversees the jails), correctional health employees, public defenders, and the family of a man incarcerated in the aging downtown L.A. facility.

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LAist spoke or texted with six current and one former correctional health worker and three public defenders who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. The mother of the incarcerated man in the jail chose to identify her and her son only by their first names for privacy concerns.

The L.A. County Department of Health Services, which employs correctional health workers in the jail, declined to answer questions regarding the flooding incidents, referring LAist to the Sheriff’s Department.

What Caused The Flooding?

In an emailed statement, the department confirmed that a flood occurred in Tower One on August 5.

The “main domestic water supply system” in the jail “malfunctioned and suspended water service to the facility,” according to the statement. An inspection found that a “large 4-inch domestic water line had ruptured at four different locations due to the pressure.”

The department said the flooding caused the elevator’s “seismic safety control box to shut down all elevators in the building.”

Staff and incarcerated people use the jail elevators to travel from floor to floor, access medical care, visit family members, and leave the jail to go to court. The alternatives to the elevators are steep, concrete stairs that pose a risk for staff and incarcerated people with mobility issues and do not allow wheelchair transportation, according to correctional health workers.

Employees were sent home for the day — the toilets stopped working, according to our sources. The water was eventually cleaned up. But that wasn’t the end of the ordeal.

About two weeks later, another rupture in Tower Two sent water gushing down some elevator shafts, according to multiple health workers. Elevators there also stopped working.

What's Working, What's Not

Last Thursday, the Sheriff’s Department said eight elevators remain operational and 13 are “non-operable,” adding, “repairs are still on-going and will continue until all equipment operations are returned to their intended use.”

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Sources estimate that at any time, only one to three elevators are functional per tower. The department did not confirm how many elevators are typically available for incarcerated people. Staff also said the elevators break down frequently, so not all elevators are inoperable due to flooding.

“People have gotten locked inside these elevators because they will not open, or we have to manually close them,” said one health worker. “The doors are not closing all the way while they're being operated. It's just unreal.”

“You could just hear the water pouring down,” they said. “I'm not willing to risk it anymore, and I'm having to tell my supervisor, I'm not going to see this person. Because it puts a risk on my safety.”

The elevator issues have paralyzed the day-to-day operations of the jail for weeks.

Last Tuesday, a line of 20 to 30 incarcerated people formed at one of the only operational elevators in one tower, according to another health worker. Eventually, they said deputies opened a stairwell that’s normally off-limits.

You could just hear the water pouring down.
— A health worker inside Twin Towers jail

The flood didn’t just break the elevators.

Correctional health workers said the ceiling of a medical office partially caved in due to water damage and employees were temporarily sent out of the area. The Sheriff’s Department confirmed the incident in a statement and said the office was “returned to occupancy.”

The flooding problem isn’t the only building maintenance issue to recently plague the jail.

Correctional health workers also recently sounded the alarm about mold growing in one of the tower offices. It was so serious that medical staff moved out of the office.

The Sheriff’s Department said in a statement that its Facility Services Bureau inspected the area and brought in an outside vendor to test the air quality. Results of the test were expected to be delivered to the department Monday.

‘The Elevator Problem Is Just Today’s Flavor’

The elevator problem is part of larger issues plaguing the county jail system, L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman told LAist via text.

“If they had a smaller population they’d have correspondingly more deputies and could transport people on stairs,” he said. “It’s like overcrowding a ferry boat. All is fine until the wind comes up and then everyone drowns.”

Huntsman pointed to overcrowding problems he and his staff have witnessed throughout the jail system; they’re outlined in Huntsman’s latest report, released in August, on LASD reform and oversight efforts. The report said incarcerated people with mental illnesses at the Inmate Reception Center are “regularly chained to benches for long periods with only sporadic bathroom breaks,” noting some had been chained “for over sixty hours.”

As of mid-August, the total population across all of L.A.’s jails was over 14,000 incarcerated people, the report stated, while the system has a Board of State and Community Corrections total rated capacity of about 12,400 people.

“Currently for political reasons, the sheriff maintains an excessive jail population and deputies and prisoners suffer,” said Huntsman, who has clashed repeatedly with Sheriff Alex Villanueva over transparency and oversight. “The elevator problem is just today’s flavor.”

It’s like overcrowding a ferry boat. All is fine until the wind comes up and then everyone drowns.
— L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman

A May 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.

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 being in compliance and has given it until 2024 to fall into line.

Missing Court Dates And Family Time

A screenshot of a website shows the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department logo at the top. A message on the page reads, in red letters, ****All of TTCF's scheduled visits will be accommodate utilizing our Video Monitors due to an unplaneed facility maintenance issue. We do apologize for the inconvenience." It is followed by a new paragraph in black type that reads "Due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, visiting will be limited to 1 adult and 1 child per visit. Public visits much be scheduled, no walk in allowed." The word COVID-19 in that paragraph is printed in bold. That paragraph It is followed by another in red type that reads, "North Shore Clinical Labs will provide free COVID-19 testing at LASD Custody Visiting Centers during weekend visiting days for CRDF and PDC, TTCF and MCJ will be available Thursday to Sunday. Results will take approximately 15 min. Click the following links to preregister at: MCJ, CRDF, or at Pitchess." The links are in blue type. The last paragraph, all in bold, reads, "For more information regarding COVID-19 testing sties, please click the following link: on-site-visitor-covid-testing." The link is in blue type." On the right side of the page is a log-on prompt for returning users; below it is a button for new users that says REGISTER TODAY
The homepage of LASD’s Inmate Visitation Scheduling System shows that visitation has been suspended due to “an unplanned facility maintenance issue.”
(Screenshot)

The elevator fiasco has also prevented incarcerated people from making their court dates and seeing their families.

On August 25, at least three incarcerated people in Twin Towers missed their court dates because of an “unoperational elevator,” according to a list obtained by LAist that was emailed to court administrative staff by the Sheriff’s Department.

More than 20 incarcerated people in the jail were also marked on that list as a “miss-out” with no further information on why they were unable to attend court. About 10 people were marked “pending wheelchair transportation.”

In a statement, the Sheriff’s Department said “all efforts are made to ensure inmates make their court appearances,” and judges are notified when an incarcerated person can’t make it to court “due to unforeseen circumstances.”

We reported last month that LASD’s bus transportation fleet was down by nearly 40%, causing some incarcerated people to miss important court dates or stay in county jails longer. Those problems are ongoing, according to court sources.

He's my only son. So he's my baby, you know?
— Sara, the mother of Ramiro, an incarcerated person in Twin Towers jail.

Incarcerated people have also not been able to see their families in person for weeks.

The department’s visitation scheduling website gives scant details on the situation: “All of [Twin Towers’] scheduled visits will be accommodated utilizing our Video Monitors due to an unplanned facility maintenance issue.”

But the scheduling calendar doesn’t allow families to select dates.

One mother of an incarcerated man in the jail said she still hadn’t been able to schedule a video call. Though they usually talk every day on the phone, neither she nor the man’s grandmother had been able to see him for weeks.

TWIN TOWERS FLOODING
Families of incarcerated people in Twin Towers haven’t been able to visit their loved ones for weeks.
(Screenshot)

“It's affecting us quite a bit,” said Sara, whose son Ramiro was first incarcerated in Twin Towers three years ago.

Sara requested that we withhold her last name, the last name of her son and why he was incarcerated for fear of retaliation.

“He's my only son. So he's my baby, you know?” she said.

Sara said Ramiro and his dorm were transferred to the seventh floor of the jail due to the flooding.

As Southern California grapples with an aggressive heat wave, Sara said her son has been complaining about the lack of air conditioning on his new floor.

Alleged Retaliation

On Saturday, Sara said she got a call from an incarcerated person in Ramiro’s dorm. The person told her that Ramiro was collecting signatures from other incarcerated people on a written testimony for LAist about what is happening in the jails. But the person said he witnessed a deputy confiscate the paper on Saturday and subsequently witnessed Ramiro being taken away to solitary confinement.

“I waited all day Sunday for his call, but he has not called me,” Sara said.

The Sheriff's Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Melissa Camacho-Cheung, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, said while she does not have confirmation of Ramiro’s story, she told LAist that she is filing a third-party grievance on his behalf.

Camacho-Cheung said she gets “multiple calls a week” alleging retaliation against incarcerated people for speaking out on jail conditions.

“It’s one of the most consistent complaints that we get,” she said. “This appears to be a real pattern of behavior by deputies to try and keep people from speaking out or complaining about their experiences in the jails.”

Camacho-Cheung noted the department has come under fire from Huntsman’s office before for alleged retaliation, citing a lack of discipline for the behavior.

“You're just creating an environment where retaliation is going to be rampant because people know they're not going to be held to account for it,” she said.

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.