By Mike Brodheim and Alex Friedmann

WITH SEVEN FACILITIES THAT HOUSE from 15,000 to 18,000 prisoners, Los Angeles County’s jail system is the nation’s largest – and, arguably, among the most dangerous in terms of staff-on-prisoner violence.

The jail system, operated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), is facing an investigation by the FBI into allegations of corruption and abuse, as well as multiple lawsuits. Sheriff Leroy David “Lee” Baca, 70, has committed to numerous reforms following a report and recommendations by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, but people familiar with long-standing problems in the county’s jails remain skeptical.

A Continuing Culture of Violence

THE LASD JAIL SYSTEM HAS BEEN UNDER federal court oversight since the 1970s when, following a 17-day trial, an injunction was issued that ordered the county to improve jail conditions – including overcrowding, inadequate exercise, and lack of clean clothing and telephone access. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had initially sued Los Angeles County in 1975, alleging that overcrowded conditions, systematic abuse of prisoners by sheriff’s deputies and inadequate medical care violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. See: Rutherford v. Baca, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. CV 75-04111 DDP. [PLN, March 2007, p.35].

A renewed deterioration of jail conditions led to the reopening of the case in 1984. Since then, a number of court-appointed parties and experts, including the ACLU, have been monitoring conditions within the county’s jail system. Other oversight agencies include the Office of Independent Review (OIR) and Special Counsel to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

In December 2010, the ACLU asked the federal court to order a new trial in the case based on what it described as “an escalating crisis of deputy violence, abuse, and inmate suicides.” Between 2006 and 2011 there were 5,630 use of force incidents reported in county jail facilities, and according to the LASD’s own data, deputies are more likely to use force against mentally ill prisoners. Of the 582 use of force incidents reported in 2011, about one-third involved prisoners with mental health problems.

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