Sheriff Baca agrees to shutter much of troubled Men's Central Jail
Facing an FBI investigation into brutality in his jails, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca publicly committed Tuesday to shuttering much of his most problematic lockup, Men’s Central Jail, barring some unexpected spike in violent crime.
In the past, Baca has tied the idea of shutting down the troubled downtown Los Angeles facility to the county paying for an expensive new jail. The Times reported last month that for the first time Baca was open to shutting down the old section of Men’s Central Jail -- the epicenter of violent clashes between deputies and inmates -- even without a new jail.
Speaking at a news conference outside sheriff’s headquarters, Baca publicly committed to the plan for the first time, but dismissed the idea that he was shifting his long-held stance because of the intense scrutiny in recent months of abuse inside his jails.
“Bear with me if it sounds like I’m changing my tune ... investigations and allegations are not bases for rational management decisions,” Baca said. “We’re not talking here about all of a sudden we’ve been put in a corner.”
Baca said another development was the opportunity to house some inmates at fire camps that have been used for state prisoners, and moving other inmates to facilities outside the county.
For years, Men’s Central Jail has been Baca’s most troubled lockup, plagued by inmate killings, excessive force by guards and poor supervision. Some 1,800 inmates, many of them the county’s most violent, would have to be moved to other sheriff’s facilities.
If adopted, the plan would bring significant changes to the way the nation's largest jail system is run. It would solve what has long been a major problem for the department: having the most violent inmates housed in an antiquated facility.
Men's Central is designed with long rows of cramped cells, rather than the more modern circular configuration that makes controlling inmates, supervising jailers and protecting employees significantly easier. But closing the section of Men's Central would also reduce the number of total inmates the system can handle.
The Sheriff's Department already releases some inmates early because of a lack of funding and is expected to receive thousands of new inmates under a plan that is sending to county jails offenders who previously landed in state prison.
Sheriff’s officials have said that more relatively low-risk inmates would have to be released on electronic monitoring if Men’s Central is shuttered. The jail’s third floor -- called the 3000 floor -- houses some of the county's most dangerous inmates, including killers and notorious gang leaders.
Many face the possibility of a lifetime in prison and are known to fashion makeshift knives from toothbrushes and sharp spears from ripped magazines to attack fellow inmates or guards. The Times reported last year that sheriff's managers assigned some of their least-experienced deputies to the third floor.
While deputies at Men's Central had 31 months of experience on average, those assigned to 3000 had only 20 months, according to 2009 sheriff's memos. Some deputies were assigned to 3000 as rookies, one report said. The 3000 floor saw more force incidents -- 437 -- than any other in Men's Central from 2006 through 2010, department records show.
The third floor drew public scrutiny in 2010 when The Times reported that a fight broke out at a department Christmas party between a group of deputies assigned to 3000 and other jailers. After the brawl, sheriff's officials said deputies on the third floor had formed an aggressive clique whose members flashed gang-like three-finger hand signs.
Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project and a fierce critic of Baca’s management of the jails, stood side by side with the sheriff Tuesday and lauded his openness to shutting down at least part of Men’s Central Jail.
If Baca goes through with the reforms, such as releasing more inmates who can’t afford bail, Winter said, “What we’re going to see is the Los Angeles County jail system become a model for the entire nation.”
-- Robert Faturechi
Photo: Sheriff Lee Baca in October. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times