Sunday, December 17, 2006

L.A. County Jail Beset by Explosive Ethnic Violence

Today's Los Angeles Times has a disturbing story on the violence at the Los Angeles County jail, with the depths of depravity there making the lockup tantamount to an ethnic heart of darkness. Here's an excerpt:

On a Tuesday in October 2003, Ki Hong entered Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles to serve a five-day sentence for soliciting a prostitute.

He didn't survive two hours.

Three members of a Korean gang instantly spotted Hong, 34, who authorities allege was a member of a rival gang. The trio had broad freedom to roam the jail because sheriff's deputies had given them jobs as inmate workers — jobs for which they, awaiting trial on murder charges, should have been ineligible.

They let themselves into Hong's dormitory using a guard's control button. Then they stabbed Hong repeatedly, strangled him with bed linen and hid his body in a trash bin.

Since 2000, 14 inmates have been slain in jails run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, including four this year. Hundreds more have been injured in jail violence.

Taxpayers, who pay more than $500 million a year to operate the jails, paid an additional $6 million since 2004 to compensate inmates and their survivors for errors, negligence and brutality. In addition, a tentative $2.8-million settlement is awaiting county approval.

A Times review found that:

• The Sheriff's Department has failed to protect vulnerable inmates from predators, despite repeated calls for action by jail experts. Last year, deputies placed Chadwick Cochran, a low-level offender with a long history of mental illness, in an unsupervised holding cell with violent gang members. They punched and stomped him to death.

• The department has had increasing difficulty maintaining order at its eight jail facilities. More than 30 major disturbances involving large numbers of inmates erupted this year. Riots left two dead and at least 100 injured. After widespread rioting in 2000, the violence subsided briefly. But the number of disturbances has risen from 47 in 2001 to 112 this year, records show.

• Disciplinary action against sheriff's employees whose lapses contributed to inmate deaths or injuries is often softened or rescinded on appeal. In one case in 2003, a deputy was suspended five days for failing to notice that two inmates, drunk on jail-brewed alcohol, had beaten their mentally ill cellmate to death. A supervisor overturned the suspension over the objections of the department's internal affairs monitor.

The Hong case cost the county $800,000 in legal claims and prompted sanctions against a dozen jail employees. Yet similar failures played a role in at least seven inmate deaths over the next two years.

In the most notorious case, an inmate wandered unescorted through Men's Central Jail for several hours, finally finding a witness who had testified against him in a murder case and strangling him in his cell.

Sheriff Lee Baca says his department has done its best to contain an ever-more-explosive inmate population."

It's remarkable there's not more violence in the context of the county jail demographics," he said in an interview. "It could be 10 to 100 times worse if it wasn't for the managers and deputies in the Los Angeles County Jail. We'll never be singled out for the murders we have prevented."
Read the whole thing. The article suggests that the majority of inmates are Latino, and that African-Americans are an at-risk demographic inside the jailhouse blocks. One in five inmates is a gang member -- pertuating gangland violence inside the lockup -- and most of those landing in jail are there on felony charges. While it looks like there's some incompetence in running the jail, there's clearly a need for more resources, especially in facilities and personnel.

It's sometimes hard to fathom what goes on inside lockups -- whatever takes place there is truly scary, and completely of another world from that familiar to the average, law-abiding middle class American.

No comments: