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ACLU: Mentally ill suffer abuse in L.A. County jails [UPDATED]

April 14, 2009 |  8:50 am

Updated, 9:40 a.m.: At a news conference this morning outside the L.A. County Board of Supervisors meeting, ACLU general counsel Melinda Bird said: "We are urging the Board of Supervisors to address the conditions in Men's Central Jail because the conditions are medieval and drive men mad. Even the sheriff agrees that the only way to fix Men's Central Jail is to close it."

Original post:

Civil rights activists today called for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and sheriff to close the Men’s Central Jail, where they say nightmarish conditions and overcrowding have exacerbated the symptoms of thousands of inmates suffering serious mental illness.

American Civil Liberties Union leaders made the call as they released a report by an expert on mental health in jails that paints the aging Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A. as a massively overcrowded center where the mentally ill are abused, kept in their cells for much, if not all, of the day, and instead of being treated are subject to discipline.

They say the money from the closure would be better spent on mental health programs that could reduce the influx of inmates. The report by Dr. Terry Kupers, produced for the ACLU of Southern California, comes after an inmate hung himself last month in disciplinary housing inside the Men’s Central Jail.

Such is the level of problems that Kupers, a nationally known prison expert, reports that while both the U.S. Department of Justice and ACLU monitor the county jail system, a court-appointed master or monitor is needed to check on the mental health services across the county jails.

Sheriff Lee Baca, whose department operates the L.A. County jails, has long said the system is the largest mental health institution in the country.

The push by the ACLU, which has been a constant critic of jailhouse conditions and represents inmates in several lawsuits, comes as Baca is considering how to close a budget shortfall. In February, as the county’s budget projections worsened, Baca warned that he might have to release some inmates and close the Men’s Central Jail if he could not find alternatives.

Built in 1963, the jail costs about $50 million a year to operate and houses about 6,700 of the 18,000 inmates in the county jail system. The Men’s Central Jail, with some of the most dangerous inmates in the country, is known for outbreaks of violence, including slayings committed by inmates.

Despite the construction of the neighboring Twin Towers jail to help handle inmates with mental health issues, Kupers’ report found inmates with mental illness are still housed at Men’s Central and their disorders often overlooked.

He describes it as a dark and dank jail with crowded rows of mostly windowless cells, where rehabilitation programs are scarce or nonexistent and treatment is limited to medication. Those suffering from mental illness are often those most abused by fellow inmates, he says. The jailhouse rapist, he says, “selects a prisoner with significant mental illness, a loner who would likely have friends who might not retaliate.” (Note: An earlier version of this post left out the word "not" before "retaliate.")

Kupers says he was “stunned by the degree of overcrowding” at Men’s Central Jail when he visited last year and that calculations performed for his report found the institution fell far short of the space standard set by the American Correctional Assn., which is 35 square feet of unencumbered space per inmate.

He says the jail was so overcrowded that in many instances deputies simply could not see all the inmate areas because so many people were crammed into some spaces. He acknowledges that since his visit improvements have been made to reduce overcrowding, but for the most part men remain in their cells 24 hours a day, eat their meals there and don’t have access to mental health programs.

Lighting, he notes, was particularly bad.

“There is a double problem, the fixtures do not provide sufficient light for reading, and then lights are left on all night, interfering with sleep,” he writes.

Inmates' mental health suffers in this environment as they desperately crave interaction with the natural world in a windowless environment, where the older architecture exacerbates the noise, Kupers writes. Such are the conditions, Kupers says, that the staff has become “increasingly insensitive to prisoner concerns” as “excessive force and other abuses become more frequent occurrences.”

Many of those finding their way to L.A. County jails until the 1970s would have been treated in state psychiatric hospitals. The state changed its approach and opted to try to treat the mentally ill in the community. However, shortcomings led in many cases to no treatment at all, and the mentally ill often ended up in jail for nuisance offenses.

The sheer volume of inmates, Kupers says -- about 13,000 a month -- makes it impossible to screen for mental illness in all inmates. Kupers, a psychiatrist, alleges there is a pattern of failure to diagnose such illness and that jail officials inappropriately downgrade prisoners’ mental health disorders because there is not enough space in mental health areas of county jails. He cited incidences in which inmates with documented histories of mental hospital treatment for schizophrenia were downgraded to a disorder not worthy of mental health treatment.

Mentally ill inmates often end up in a segregated unit, where the shouting and crying are worse than in the general population unit, and pepper spray sometimes wafts into their cells from nearby incidents.

Kupers recommends the jail population across the system be reduced immediately. Mentally ill inmates, he says, need mental health housing, not segregation and punishment.

-- Richard Winton

From Times archives

In jail and in danger (December 17, 2006)

Healthcare suffers at L.A. jails (Dec. 24, 2006)

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