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Watchdogs concerned about 4 LA County jail deaths in 10 days

FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2011 photo, people walk past the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Men's Central Jail facility in Los Angeles. A federal judge has given initial approval to an agreement that requires the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to improve conditions in its jails for inmates using wheelchairs and others with mobility impairments. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
Damian Dovarganes/AP
One of the three inmates who died over a five day period earlier this month died at a nursing station inside Los Angeles Men's Central Jail.

Four Los Angeles County jail inmates have died since March 1, according to documents obtained by KPCC, which jail watchdogs call concerning in light of past documentation of inmate neglect in the jails.

There are no overt signs of foul play, according to documents, and the latest appears to have been a suicide. The deaths occurred at three different facilities.

"The causes of death are being investigated and will be determined by the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office," said sheriff's spokeswoman Nicole Nishida, who confirmed four inmates have died since March 1, but would not confirm exact dates or names.

“It’s a lot of deaths in a short period,” said Ester Lim, who monitors the jails for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California as part of a federal ruling on overcrowding more than a decade ago. 

Six inmates have died in custody since January, including the apparent suicide, according to Nishida. In 2016, 20 inmates died in L.A. County jails. In 2015, 21 died.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell agreed in 2015 to conduct more frequent checks on the welfare of inmates - in some cases, every 15 minutes - and to provide better health care. The promises came as part of federal oversight of the jails designed to put an end to what federal officials deemed a pattern of mistreatment of mentally ill inmates - and especially to reduce the number of suicides. 

In a statement, the department said it is complying with the federal rules:

“The Sheriff’s Department and the Department of Health Services are working diligently and collaboratively with our Department of Justice partners to come into full compliance with 69 provisions of a multi-year Settlement Agreement,” the statement said.

Here are details on the deaths, according to the documents:

  • On March 1, a 64-year-old white male was found “unresponsive” shortly after 7 a.m. in the mental health living area of Twin Towers in downtown Los Angeles. He was declared dead at 7:24 a.m. He had been arrested the previous week for possession of methamphetamine.
  • On March 3, sheriff’s deputies responded to a “man down call” in a dormitory at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic around 2:30 a.m. They found a 43-year-old black male “unresponsive” lying on the ground. He was taken to Henry Mayo Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 3:32 a.m. He had been arrested January 21 for a parole violation, according to the documents.
  • On March 5, a 72-year-old white male was found on the floor of his cell at Men's Central Jail during a security check at 2:20 a.m. He was “treated for an injury to his head,” and scheduled to be taken to the hospital. But he was “discovered not breathing” while sitting in a wheelchair outside the jail’s nursing station at 5:50 a.m. Paramedics pronounced him dead at 6:38. He had been arrested January 7 on a battery charge.
  • On Thursday, a 48-year-old white male died at County USC Medical Center, where he's been on life support since being found unresponsive in his cell in Twin Towers, with a county-issued shirt around his head. He'd been in custody on robbery charges since January.

"Anytime there's a death in the jails, it should raise a lot of questions,” Lim said. "It's hard to know what really happened to these people."
Watchdogs often must wait months before finding out how people died and sometimes never find out if there's foul play, she said.

The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, established last year by the county Board of Supervisors, is not privy to details surrounding jail deaths, including personnel and other records.

“If the group could subpoena testimony from health workers and other people who work in the jails, we would know more about what is going on,” said Mark Anthony-Johnson of the watchdog Dignity and Power Now, bringing up a longstanding complaint about the limits of the commission's powers.

McDonnell has pointed out that he provides wide access to sheriff’s officials and documents - including information on jail deaths - to the county's Inspector General, Max Huntsman, who is in charge of investigating the department.

This story was updated with a fourth death

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of inmates who died in L.A. County jails in 2015 and 2016. KPCC regrets the error.