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LA County jail problems linger with big lawsuits

Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail
Corey Bridwell/KPCC
Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed Wednesday to pay more than $3 million to the families of two people who died while in county jail.

One case is from 2009, the other from 2013 – before reforms were underway in the jails, sheriff's officials say.

Helen Jones alleged her son John Horton, 22, was never properly placed in a mental health unit, despite a court order instructing jailers to do so. Instead he was placed in solitary confinement in Men’s Central Jail where he hung himself. His case was highlighted by the American Civil Liberties Union as an example of neglect, noting Horton was placed in a "dimly lit, windowless, solid-front cell the size of a closet."

The Board of Supervisors approved a $2 million settlement with his mother.

In the case three years ago, Avean Edwards alleged deputies beat her son Earl Lee Johnson, 24, and that he died from those injuries - not from hanging himself, as sheriff’s officials claim. The Board of Supervisors approved a $1.25 million settlement.

In each case, the county admits no wrongdoing but says the risks of litigation are too great to challenge the lawsuits.

In recent years, juries have delivered big payments to people injured in the jails or to the families of people who have died. Last year, the county paid $1.6 million to the family of a man who committed suicide. Austin Losorelli's death was highlighted by the U.S. Department of Justice as an example of widespread neglect of mentally ill inmates in the nation’s largest local jail system.

The family attorney, Ronald Kaye, called the settlement the biggest ever in a jail suicide case in California. 

Jail scandal leads to reforms

In recent years, a federal investigation led to the indictment of more than 20 deputies for jail beatings and other misconduct. Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was sentenced to six years in federal prison for masterminding a scheme to block the federal investigation at the jails by hiding the agency's informant – an inmate at the time – from FBI agents. 

The scandal eventually led to the abrupt resignation of former Sheriff Lee Baca in January of 2014 after 16 years in office. A federal grand jury has since indicted him for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Most of the problems were found in the aging and crowded Mens’s Central Jail that sits adjacent Chinatown near Union Station. Sheriff’s Chief Eric Parra, who helps oversee the facility, says it’s a different place since reforms began in earnest after a county blue ribbon panel recommended an array of changes in 2012.

“The primary change we’ve made is we’ve increased staff training significantly,” Parra told KPCC. Deputies are better trained on appropriate levels of force and how to effectively use it on inmates, he said.

In addition, deputies, many of whom are rookies serving their time as jail guards before they hit the streets, now receive 32 hours of training on how to deal with the mentally ill. Of the 17,000 people inside L.A. County jails on any given day, nearly a quarter suffer from mental illnesses ranging from schizophrenia to severe depression.

“Prior to this, we really didn’t have any formal training on how to deal with the mentally ill,” Parra said. Deputies go through a lot of role playing to prepare them for dealing with erratic behavior and insults without taking it personally.

Training, oversight and documentation up in the jails

The big challenge has been changing a culture where deputies issue an order and expect it to be followed to one where sometimes, if the inmate is mentally ill, not to expect normal behavior.

“You have to take the time to deal with them, you have to have extra patience,” said Parra.

He added deputies are slowly learning that they need to use more mental tactics, and that if it's not working, they should allow another deputy to try. Someone who is mentally ill may respond better to a different person.

“Getting that mindset in our personnel has been somewhat challenging. But it's there now and beginning to show results.”

Yet a new report last week by the county’s Inspector General found use of force is up at the jails.

From a high point of 1,189 incidents in 2006 to a low point of 584 in 2011, use of force by deputies against inmates totalled 1,103 in 2015. Inspector General Max Huntsman acknowledged the vast majority of the 2015 use of force incidences is minor and results in no injury to the inmate.

“It could be forcefully grabbing an inmate who is wandering away from a deputy,” Huntsman said.

Because of previous problems with brutality, the department is now carefully monitoring force inside the jails. Even a minor incident can generate a 30 or 40-page report, said Parra, who attributed the increase to better documentation.

“That is skewing our numbers dramatically,” Parra said. “We are trying to come up with a new system where that type of use of force is an abbreviated form.”

It should be noted assaults on jail staff and prisoner-on-prisoner assaults are also up.

In his report, Huntsman said some of the increase in use of force is likely attributable to an increase in the mentally ill population and the department’s efforts to allow them out of their cells more often. That creates more opportunity for agitation and the need for force, Huntsman said.

“That is a factor,” Parra said. He noted 80 percent of all use of force involves mentally ill inmates.

Much of the focus on reform at the jails is on the mentally ill, mainly because of an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that requires improvements. In addition to training, the Sheriff’s Department has increased the number of guards, and the county’s Department of Health Services now oversees health services inside the jail instead of the the sheriff’s department. DHS has increased clinical staffing, according to Parra.

Deputies also are engaging in more safety and security checks on all inmates, said Parra, reducing the chances of inmates committing suicide.

In perhaps the most dramatic change, the Board of Supervisors voted to replace Men's Central Jail with a new 3,885 bed facility designed to house mentally ill inmates and a new women's jail in Lancaster. Some community groups oppose the new jails, saying the money would be better spent helping the mentally ill outside of incarceration.