ACLU and LA County agree on changes at troubled jail reception center

Representatives of Los Angeles County and the American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday, Sept. 15, agreed on a proposal to quickly address what the civil rights group called “abysmal” conditions at the jail system’s booking center, where mentally ill detainees were said to have been shackled to chairs for days at a time and others were crammed together, sleeping head-to-foot on concrete floors.

The rare showing of equanimity came at a federal court hearing in which the parties discussed a stipulated temporary restraining order — expected to be filed Friday, Sept. 16 — designed to help move mentally ill inmates and others out of the inmate reception center and into secure housing within 24 hours.

It’s an issue that’s 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,” said U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson, who is overseeing the case. “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 cannot comment because of pending litigation.

At a hearing in the case on 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,” including 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.

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.

Conditions at L.A. County jails, the largest jail system in the nation, have been the subject of court oversight since 1978, when a federal court judge found numerous conditions that violate constitutional rights.

“The L.A. County Jail system is a national disgrace,” Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said in a statement. “For almost 50 years, the jail has been under court oversight to provide the most basic minimum standards of sanitation, health care and human decency to people detained there. Enough is enough.”

Law enforcement agencies arrest and take people to the reception center, where they are 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% of the inmate population, he said.

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

Both Dugdale and the ACLU agreed to fine-tune a stipulated temporary restraining order to address the situation and file it in L.A. federal court on Friday.

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