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Criminal Justice

LA Sheriff Villanueva: Allegations About Jail Deputies ‘False’; Jail Staffers Say Problems Persist

Twin Towers Correctional Facility. (David McNew/Getty Images)
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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva says allegations we reported last month that his deputies are flouting COVID-19 regulations in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility are “demonstrably false.” Mental health staff at the jail contend that the problems they described persist in the facility.

In our story, mental health social workers and other staff detailed a lawless environment in which unmasked deputies — many of whom said they were unvaccinated — have gone so far as to try to convince incarcerated people with severe mental and physical health issues not to get vaccinated.

In a Feb. 9 letter to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, Villanueva said the concerns articulated by jail staff “are not new allegations,” and that the department had conducted a “full inquiry” early last year that included interviewing incarcerated people and staff.

“We found no information or documentation supporting any of these allegations,” he said.

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Calling LAist “a less than accurate source,” the sheriff said that after our story was published his department “revisited the issue and reviewed inmate grievances,” adding that “nothing was discovered which supported anything in these allegations.”

While reporting our original story, we reviewed complaints filed directly to the Sheriff’s Department and Correctional Health Services supervisory staff by health care workers alleging that deputies were unmasked.

We contacted the sources for our original story and asked them to review the sheriff’s letter. All five of them said deputies routinely continue to flout COVID-19 guidelines by not masking up or failing to provide masks to incarcerated patients when out of their cells.

They spoke to us initially and again now on the condition they not be named because of fear of retaliation. Some said they were concerned deputies would fail to provide them security if they found out they had spoken with us.

The bottom line is that they're lying.
— Social worker A

"The bottom line is that they're lying,” said a social worker whom we referred to as social worker A, after reading Villanueva’s letter. “It was laughable and it was insulting to read,” this individual said. “It’s just really sad to see so many lies being told by some of the highest elected leaders.”

‘The Deputies Have Been Worse’ About Masks

In response to concerns about deputies not wearing masks, Villanueva wrote, “we take this very seriously,” and said supervisors at jail facilities are monitoring work areas “to ensure our personnel are wearing masks.”

But a social worker we will refer to as social worker C said in a text, “[S]ince the article came out [I] feel the deputies have been WORSE re: mask violations, kind of seems like a flagrant refusal (a F%*! YOU) to anyone who complained.”

A social worker we referred to as social worker B agreed, telling us on Wednesday that they continued to see deputies not wearing masks in both Twin Towers and Men’s Central Jail.

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Ultimately, for us it’s a question of making sure that the conditions in the jails are good and safe for everyone involved.
— Brian Williams, executive director of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission

“Today, I was at [Men’s Central Jail] and the deputy who helped didn’t wear a mask at all! Like nothing on his face!” social worker B said in a text.

Social worker B also said incarcerated people continue to come out of their cells unmasked, adding, “[s]ometimes, they're not even offered a mask so I have to see them without it.”

The sheriff said in his letter that a department employee who worked at Men’s Central Jail was “relieved of duty” because he refused to wear a mask.

Our sources were skeptical. “I don’t know anyone who’s ever gotten talked to about not wearing a mask,” wrote social worker B.

The Sheriff’s Department did not respond to a request for comment regarding the new allegations and for more information about the employee who the department said was relieved of duty.

Brian Williams, executive director of the oversight panel, said he “appreciated the quick response” from the Sheriff’s Department in providing information about the situation in the jails.

“Ultimately, for us it’s a question of making sure that the conditions in the jails are good and safe for everyone involved” and that “folks are following the rules,” he said. “So I think we’re on that path,” Williams said, while noting, “we’re continuing to look into this.”

‘The Footage Has All The Proof’

Two sources said Correctional Health Services Director Timothy Belavich addressed our story in a town hall meeting with employees on Wednesday. The sources said Belavich only responded to the concerns about deputies not wearing masks, stating that the issue was nothing new.

“He actually said he didn’t really know what else he should address,” said social worker A.

Belavich has not responded to a request for comment.

The Department of Health Services (which oversees Correctional Health Services) said in an email response to our request for comment, “we are looking into this and hope to provide you with an update as soon as possible.”

Jail staff said there’s an easy way to prove that problems with deputies persist: check the jail cameras.

“The footage has all the proof,” said social worker A. “They use the footage to discipline staff. But they’re not going to use the footage for this?”

Asked if he would request to review jail videos, Williams said, “Whatever information we need to make sure that we’re satisfied and that the community is satisfied is what we’ll see.”

Another Defaced Sign

We also reported that, according to four Twin Towers staffers, deputies defaced signs posted next to elevators on multiple floors that encouraged “social distancing” so that they read “social dancing,” and put numerous homemade signs on printer paper throughout hallways that said, “#fakenews,” “Let’s Go Brandon,” and other anti-Biden slogans. Jail staff said the altered signs were posted on nearly every floor of the jail.

Social worker A said most of the signs have been taken down.

“That’s something they can correct immediately,” said social worker A. But “they cannot control their staff,” they said, reiterating that deputies remain unmasked.

A different jail source sent a photo on Monday of a newly defaced sign in a jail parking garage with a sticker that is a photograph of President Biden pointing to the sign’s message that face masks are required at all times above the words, “I did that!” A similar sticker was removed from a different sign in the parking garage earlier this month after we published a photo of it.

A sign stenciled in black on a parking garage wall reads, "Face mask required at all times." Just below the message is a small sticker that is a photograph of President Biden pointing to the sign’s message above the words, “I did that!”
The photo sent to us on Monday of the defaced sign in a parking garage for downtown jail staff.
((A Twin Towers health care worker))
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.