Los Angeles Federal Judge Orders Changes at Jail Inmate Reception Center

Los Angeles Federal Judge Orders Changes at Jail Inmate Reception Center
A prisoner waits in a holding cell in the Twin Towers Correction Facility during a media tour of the facility and the adjacent Los Angeles Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles on May 19, 2004. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)
City News Service

LOS ANGELES—A Los Angeles federal judge has signed off on a temporary restraining order addressing what the American Civil Liberties Union called “abysmal” conditions at the county jail system’s booking center, where mentally ill detainees were reportedly kept shackled to chairs for days at a time and others were crammed together, sleeping head-to-foot on concrete floors, according to court documents obtained on Sept. 17.

U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson signed the order Friday compelling guards to move inmates out of the inmate reception center and into secure housing within 24 hours.

Representatives of Los Angeles County and the ACLU met at a court hearing a day earlier and agreed to fine-tune the order and present it to the judge for approval.

The issue has come up before in the 44-year history of federal oversight of the county jail system, the largest in the nation.

“This problem’s been going on for decades,” Pregerson, who is overseeing the case, said at the hearing. “The only way out of this is to provide adequate funding.”

ACLU attorneys who visited the center in downtown Los Angeles late last month reported unhygienic conditions, including floors littered with trash, overflowing sinks and toilets, no access to showers or clean clothes for days and lack of adequate access to drinking water and food at the center.

The civil rights group also claims the facility is negligent in providing adequate health care, including failure to provide people with serious mental illness or chronic medical conditions their medications and fails to provide care to people dangerously detoxing from drugs and alcohol.

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department runs the jail system. A spokesperson said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

At the hearing Thursday, Robert Dugdale, an attorney representing Sheriff Alex Villanueva, did not dispute the ACLU’s assessment of conditions at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.

He said the situation at the facility’s booking center has “deteriorated. The place is a mess for a variety of reasons.”

The problems at the facility include a large influx of mentally ill detainees and the end of the pandemic-induced “zero bail” policy in which individuals accused of “low-level” offenses were booked and released in order to reduce the inmate population, Dugdale said.

The ACLU National Prison Project and the ACLU of Southern California filed an emergency motion last week, asking Pregerson to order the county to limit custody at the reception center to 24 hours.

Melissa Camacho-Cheung, senior staff attorney at the ACLU SoCal, told the court that reception center detainees were “suffering in some rather horrific ways. The most vulnerable in this group are being left chained to a bench. They’re supposed to be removed from the chairs so they can use the bathroom, but people end up defecating on themselves.”

At the time of her visit, conditions were “so filthy, it’s hard to imagine,” she said.

L.A. County’s jails have been the subject of court oversight since 1978, when a federal court judge ruled in the ACLU SoCal case Rutherford v. Pitchess, finding numerous conditions that violate the constitutional rights of incarcerated people.

Law enforcement agencies arrest and take people to the reception center, where they are meant to get booked and transferred to another facility within 24 hours. Many of the people detained there are unhoused, have serious mental illnesses, or both, according to the ACLU.

Dugdale said that when the “zero bail” policy was enacted, the jail population dropped from 17,000 to 12,000 inmates, but since the policy was terminated in July, the detainee population has risen to nearly 14,800. Complicating matters, the mentally ill make up about 45 percent of the inmate population, he said.

The L.A. County jail system is “the largest defacto mental health facility in the country,” the attorney said.

Pregerson said he plans to inspect the inmate reception center in the near future.

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