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Articles

Dangerous Jails

August 31, 2011 08:00:00 pm

By Matthew Fleischer

Image via Witness LA.

Juan Pablo Reyes says he was just doing his job on the afternoon of Friday, December 10, 2010, when he picked up a letter he found lying on the ground steps away from a deputy station on the third floor of Los Angeles County’s Men’s Central Jail at the northeast end of downtown Los Angeles.

An inmate inside CJ, as Men’s Central Jail is called, Reyes, 30, was sweeping the floor as part of his daily duties as a trustee—a job that grants select inmates special privileges and work details. Trustees are chosen by sheriff’s deputies, and the position is reserved for inmates who are considered reliable.

The Los Angeles County jail system is made up of seven facilities housing an estimated 18,000 to 19,000 inmates on any given day, making it the nation’s largest jail complex.

With a daily population of about 4,350, CJ is the largest of the seven.

Reyes was in CJ for a 360-day term on a domestic abuse conviction arising from a custody dispute—for making criminal threats against the mother of his child. Not exactly a saint. But at 5-foot-9 with a medium build, he’s an unimposing man, with no tattoos and no gang affiliation. This was his first arrest and he did everything he could to steer clear of trouble inside the jail.

It was around 1:30 p.m. when Reyes discovered the errant letter and immediately walked it to the nearest deputy. It never occurred to Reyes that his action would be viewed as out of the ordinary. For months he’d been performing similar duties, sweeping and cleaning and tidying the deputies’ desks and bathroom, with no problems.

But this particular deputy, whose full name Reyes doesn’t know, had a reputation among inmates as being especially unfair, quick to rile, and even violent. The deputy accused Reyes of stealing the letter—a charge Reyes vehemently denied.

 “We’ll deal with this on Sunday,” said the deputy.

The deputy made good on his threat. Around 11 on Sunday morning, the deputy who accused Reyes of stealing the note came to Reyes’ cell on the 3700 module with another guard in tow. The deputies told Reyes to change into his standard blues, the garb that county jail inmates are issued for daily wear.

The inmate did as he was told. The deputies then cornered the inmate and told him if he fingered other inmates for drug possession—“coke or crystal”—they would forget he stole the letter the previous Friday. Reyes says he told deputies he “knew nothing.”

Plastic Gloves

Unsatisfied with Reyes’ answer, they told Reyes to exit his cell and put his hands on the hallway wall. As Reyes complied, he says he watched as the deputies put on plastic gloves. Moments later, the beating began. According to Reyes, they hit him in the face with their fists, fracturing the orbital bone in his left eye socket, and continued hitting him behind his head, kicking him in the ribs when he fell to the ground.

{The beating was followed by even worse humiliation, in which he was paraded naked before other inmates, then thrust into a cell where he was punched, kicked and raped by jail gang members]

 On December 26, two weeks after the alleged beating, he was taken to Los Angeles County+USC Hospital, where doctors confirmed [that he has suffered an  orbital bone]  fracture and said he would require surgery to repair his eye.

After four days in the hospital, he was released directly from the jail ward, more than a month before his sentence was up. He has yet to receive the surgery he needs.

Reyes says jail authorities interviewed him about his beating while he was still in CJ, but kept his mouth shut about deputy involvement in his injuries for fear of retribution. He says one of  the deputies who beat him was present for the interview.

“This type of thing happens all the time [inside CJ],” he says. “No one talks.”

‘Prisoners Lie’

Reyes’ story sounds like the script for an episode of HBO’s violence-haunted prison series, Oz.  Yet veteran civil rights attorney David McLane became convinced Reyes was telling the truth and agreed to take his case.

“Guards have a constitutional duty to keep inmates safe,” says McLane. “Based on my experience, inmates typically do not make up stories about sexual abuse.”

LASD spokesman Steve Whitmore “respectfully decided not to comment” regarding Reyes’ story and a list of other questions put to him by the LA Justice Report.

But Reyes is only one of many former CJ inmates alleging abuse. For years the Southern California ACLU, various civil rights lawyers and other advocates have been documenting cases of inmate abuse by deputies inside CJ.

They tell of rogue groups of deputies who perpetrate these abuses virtually unchecked, and of the pressure put on inmates and the majority of law-abiding deputies to stay silent.

“I have investigated violence in big prison and jail systems all around the country,” says Margaret Winter, who, as the associate director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project has investigated and challenged violations of prisoners’ rights in jails and prisons all over the United States.

 “I have seen what’s happening in places like Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. But I have never seen anything that begins to parallel what is happening in the LA County Jails in terms of viciousness and the brazenness with which it’s perpetrated.”

FBI Investigation

The FBI is investigating the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which runs all LA County Jails, over an incident in which deputies allegedly knocked an inmate unconscious and then beat him for several minutes in the Twin Towers jail last January.

Deputies evidently tried to cover up the abuse but, as luck would have it, this time ACLU jails monitor Esther Lim was visiting with another inmate in an adjoining room from where the incident occurred—and thus witnessed close up as the deputies allegedly beat and Tasered the inmate, whom Lim described as “limp … like a mannequin” while he was being pummeled.

Yet for all the reports and the lawsuits, in the past there has been only sporadic news coverage of the issue, and little or no public pressure on the Sheriff’s Department to investigate the patterns of abuse. Despite the work of the ACLU and others, the Sheriff’s Department has been able to deflect charges like Reyes’ with a simple refrain: “Prisoners lie.”

Sheriff’s Department officials have also repeatedly argued that the problem is with the jail itself, that CJ is old and outdated and needs to be torn down and rebuilt to ensure the safety of those inside.

"The jail is the oldest in our system,” Sheriff Lee Baca told the LA Times in November 2007. “It has outlived its time."

A six-month investigation by the LA Justice Report, however, has uncovered new information from a source well placed inside the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, a whistleblower who is intimately familiar with the workings of Men’s Central Jail, who informed us that rogue cultures have been allowed to flourish for years inside the facility.

Our source maintains that Sheriff’s Department officials at the highest levels have known since at least 2005 that there were serious problems with groups of deputies who operate inside Men’s Central Jail almost like street gangs, complete with distinguishing tattoos and handshakes.

According to our whistleblower, who agreed to speak with us on the condition of anonymity, the problem of inmate abuse in LA County Jails, often led by such groups, has been ongoing for the better part of a decade.

 As far back as 2006, top-ranking Sheriff’s Department officials ignored the advice of their on-the-ground commanding officer inside CJ, who wanted to break up the deputy gangs he saw as a serious problem. And a multimillion-dollar plan to install cameras inside CJ was abandoned in the same year, 2006, despite widespread reports of abuse inside the jail.

Our whistleblower told us that Juan Pablo Reyes’ story is not an aberration, nor was his alleged abuse a problem of architecture or lack of video cameras. Incidents like the brutality that Reyes describes are the result of years of neglect and mismanagement from the highest levels of the Sheriff’s Department.

The  3000 Boys

Significant cracks in the Sheriff’s Department “prisoners lie” excuse began to surface last fall, when news broke that a deputy gang calling itself the 3000 Boys was operating on the third floor of CJ—the same floor on which Juan Pablo Reyes claims he was beaten. Although those working inside CJ knew about the gang for years, the 3000 Boys gained public notice in the aftermath of a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Christmas party in Montebello on the night of December 9, 2010, two days before Reyes says he was assaulted.

Near the end of the party, nearly a dozen 3000 Boys allegedly ganged up on two deputies not in the third-floor gang, leaving the outnumbered pair badly beaten.

“This was not a fight,” says Gregory Yates, the lawyer representing the two deputies in a lawsuit against the county. “It was a beatdown.”

When news broke more than three months after the alleged brawl that the LASD had taken the nearly unprecedented step of firing six of the deputies said to be involved in the fight, information began to leak out about the exploits of the most aggressive of the brawlers.

The group, it seemed, had matching tattoos, threw gang signs, and for years allegedly ran the third floor of CJ by intimidating inmates and even fellow deputies who stood in their way.

Last spring, KTLA documented the case of third-floor CJ inmate Evans Tutt, who spent 11 days in the hospital after what he says was a beating with fists and flashlights at the hands of the 3000 Boys. The story described the 3000 Boys as “exhibiting the same ganglike behavior and criminal activity as the jailed inmates they’re guarding.”

In the fallout of the 3000 Boys revelations, the Sheriff’s Department has attempted to deflect attention away from its own culpability in failing to stop gangs of deputies from operating inside its jails. In an interview with KTLA, LA Sheriff Lee Baca wrote off the Christmas fight as a boys-will-be-boys case of drunkenness and dismissed talk of larger problems inside his jail system.

“If you don’t know how to deal with someone who is threatening you, who is also wearing a badge, then why are you a cop?” Baca said in the KTLA interview, addressing deputies who complained about mistreatment at the hands of the 3000 Boys. “I think [these deputies] need to man up and say, listen, I’m not a wimp.”

But contrary to Sheriff Baca’s statements to KTLA, the LA Justice Report has discovered that in the past few months, the Sheriff’s Department has quietly taken action to strip deputy gangs of their clout inside the jails.

The strategy is, of course, important and commendable. But in 2006, long before the current media firestorm forced the department into action, that same policy was ordered by Captain John Clark, who was then the commanding officer in charge of Men’s Central Jail.

At that time, levels of deputy-on-inmate force were extremely high inside the jail, and it was known at the highest levels of Sheriff’s Department management that deputy gangs played a significant role in that violence. The 3000 Boys were already in operation in 2006, however, according to our whistleblower, and they may not have even been the worst deputy gang operating inside the jail.

“There were 3000 Boys, 5000 Boys and especially 2000 Boys,” says the whistleblower. “Back then, things were almost as bad on 2000 as they were on 3000. They might have even been worse.”

Documents obtained from a Public Records Act request support our whistleblower’s contention: In 2006 there were 144 deputy-on-inmate force incidents—or “use-of-force incidents”—on the 2000 floor of CJ, compared with 110 on the now-infamous 3000 floor.

The culture that created the 3000 Boys extends well beyond the six deputies who were fired for allegedly beating their brethren—and it remains alive and well inside Men’s Central Jail.

The Camera Panacea

In the past few months, the Sheriff’s Department has tried to assuage concerns over alleged abuse at CJ by announcing plans to install a $7.2 million camera system inside the jail, which the County Board of Supervisors has approved and appropriated.

But the LA Justice Report has discovered that in 2006, a $12 million plan for a closed-circuit surveillance system was designed for CJ—only to be abandoned.

Nevertheless, while cameras have the potential to help improve accountability for abuses inside CJ, they are not a cure-all.

CJ already has some video surveillance within its walls. For instance, there are multiple cameras in the hallway of the fifth floor. And though there are not as many use-of-force incidents on that floor as there are on floors two or three, where there are no cameras, incidents still occur there.

Our public records request indicates there were 37 use-of-force incidents on the fifth floor in 2008—compared to 72 on 2000 and 70 on 3000. The Sheriff’s Department will not release information describing the exact nature of these incidents, but according to our whistleblower and other sources, a great many of them constituted abuse---even with the cameras.

Strip Search

In one 2009 incident that occurred in the hallway of the fifth floor, directly in front of cameras, a deputy called for the strip search of an inmate who had approached him without permission.

“This is often a necessary procedure,” says our whistleblower, when asked about the incident. “You’d be amazed at the things these guys can hide in their butts: shivs, knives, blunt instruments.”

But while the strip search itself was not problematic, the manner in which it was carried out was. Strip searches are supposed to be conducted in private, with the consent and presence of a supervisor.

But the deputy neither called for backup nor took the inmate aside. He conducted the search without the proper signoff by a supervisor, on the wall in the middle of the hallway, in full view of dozens of other inmates.

“That’s a violation of an inmate’s dignity,” says the whistleblower. “These are often very bad men we deal with, but you just can’t do anything you want to them.”

Things escalated from there. The officer put the inmate on the wall, made him strip and squat and told him to cough. No contraband was found. But instead of finishing the search promptly, the officer took his time—keeping the inmate naked and squatting on the wall for more than a minute.

“This procedure can and should be completed in about 15 seconds,” our informer says.

The officer presumably would have kept the inmate squatting longer, but the inmate eventually stood up without permission in protest. The deputy took the inmate to the ground and the fight was on from there.

“It should have never gotten to that point,” insists our whistleblower.

The 2009 incident pales when compared with more extreme beatings by deputies and inmate-on-inmate violence and sexual assault that deputies allegedly either facilitated or ignored. The ACLU has filed sworn declarations from more than 28 inmates alleging similar and far worse abuse than the strip-search episode in the past 18 months.

 “You could build a brand-new jail and install a $100 million camera system—none of that would matter,” says our whistleblower. “If you don’t change the culture of these facilities, nothing is going to change. And it all starts at the top.”

“This isn’t happening in East Overshoe, Mississippi,” says the ACLU’s Winter. “This is happening downtown in a major international city.”

Matthew Fleischer is a writer for the LA Justice Report project, operated by the Witness LA crime website. A complete version of his story can be seen HERE. He welcomes comments from readers.

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