10/3/2011

By Russell Squire, J.D. Candidate

On Wednesday, September 28, the ACLU released its annual report on the Los Angeles County Jail System. The report detailed dozens of unprovoked beatings and other violations of prisoners’ rights by guards, and contained numerous eyewitness accounts of prisoner abuse. Complaints to superior officers about deputy misconduct were regularly swept under the rug. In addition to releasing the report, the ACLU is calling for a federal investigation and for LA County Sheriff Lee Baca to resign.

Abuse of inmates is not new to LA County’s six jails, the largest jail system in the world with about 15,000 inmates. The ACLU first filed suit in response to abuses there 35 years ago, and the organization has been the court-appointed monitor of the jail since 1985. However, monitors say that abuses have become more frequent, and this year’s report is the first to include first-hand accounts from prison chaplains and other civilian eyewitnesses who were willing to come forward.

Many of the incidents described in the reports are shocking. In one instance, an inmate was savagely beaten after being suspected of stealing a piece of mail. He was then forced to strip naked and walk up and down the halls of the cell block while guards taunted him with a homosexual slur. When he was finally returned to his cell, he was beaten and sexually assaulted by other inmates, and the guards ignored his cries for help.

Another episode, described by a chaplain who witnessed it, involved a prisoner who was beaten so badly that “a large pool of blood” formed around his body, which was lying motionless on the floor. The three guards who had been beating the man only stopped once they saw the chaplain staring at them through the door to the room. Incredibly, when two other guards entered, they immediately began stomping on the prisoner—who was motionless and plainly posed no threat to anyone—as though it were a matter of course. They only stopped when one of the other guards in the room motioned to them that the chaplain was watching. The victim was eventually carried from the room on a stretcher.

Interestingly, one of the witnesses cited in the report was Scott Budnick, known for producing the Hangovermovies and other Hollywood films. Budnick volunteered at the jail as a mentor and teacher, and in a sworn statement he described five instances of violent prisoner abuse that he personally witnessed, including one incident in which a deputy slammed an inmate’s head into a wall with such force that Budnick “could hear anaudible crack.”

The report also makes it clear that the beatings and other abuses are not merely overreactions in the context of prisoner misbehavior, but in many cases were merely acts of arbitrary cruelty. Another episode described by Budnick involved an inmate who asked deputies for directions to the section of the prison he was heading to. At first, the guards taunted him; they then proceeded to “grab [his] hand and arm and forcefully twist [his] arm up behind his back. . . . [and] twist [his] face hard up against the wall.”

One aspect of the report that stands out is the guards’ cynical and transparent attempts to mischaracterize their behavior as responding to provocations by inmates. It was apparently common practice for guards to shout, “Stop resisting!” or “Stop fighting!” any time they were beating prisoners, regardless of whether the prisoners were actually resisting or even moving, because “deputies think they can continue to abuse inmates as long as they yell [those phrases].”

Another troubling aspect of the report—and one which explains the lack of eyewitness accounts in previous reports—is the extent to which chaplains in the jail appear to have been intimidated by the guards. It was apparently common-place, after chaplains had been visiting with inmates in secured areas of the jail, for prison deputies to take their time unlocking the doors for the chaplains to leave; chaplains regularly waited fifteen minutes or more, with no explanation for the delay. Prison chaplains also felt threatened after they witnessed prison guard misconduct. One chaplain reported that after he witnessed a beating, he found that the chaplains’ office at the prison had been searched. He also stated that he later found a deputy searching through his boxes of books (which he distributed to inmates) and that he had been afraid they might plant something there to incriminate him. Another chaplain who had witnessed violence against prisoners stated that he was afraid of being subjected to violence themselves. Finally, chaplains had reason to believe that if they mentioned the abuses to superiors, they might be transferred out of the LA County Jail System.

In light of the report, the ACLU is calling for the immediate resignation of LA County Sheriff Lee Baca. The organization is also asking U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder “to order a full criminal and civil rights investigation into the allegations" of misconduct. With regards to the latter, it appears that the FBI is already investigating civil rights abuses in the LA County Jail System.

Regardless of what inmates may have done to land them in jail or prison, governments administering those facilities have a responsibility to take care of them once they are there. Being sentenced to a term of imprisonment does not also entail being subjected to violence or other abuse. It is certainly encouraging that the FBI has taken seriously allegations of misconduct in the LA County Jail System, and hopefully the ACLU’s report will lead the Bureau to widen its investigation. If those responsible for the abuses at the jail, including those at the top who turned a blind eye to them for years, are held accountable for their actions, it will do a great deal to address the problem of prisoner abuse, and the ACLU’s persistent and laudable attention to this issue will finally pay off.