The L.A. Weekly has begun covering the epidemic of jailer abuse at L.A. County's Men's Central Jail, with this story summarizing sworn statements made by inmates to the ACLU about episodes of abuse (http://www.laweekly.com/2011-05-26/news/prisoners-testify-to-vicious-beatings-at-hands-of-county-jailers), and this one about the apparently unprecedented episode of jailers beating a visitor to the jail (http://www.laweekly.com/2011-05-26/news/men-s-county-jail-visitor-viciously-beaten-by-guards). Both bring to mind serious questions about the building's physical structure, as well as the penological model reflected in the California Penal Code and LA County's felony bail schedule. Finally, they raise a serious question about the LA County Sheriff's technique for staffing its jails, one that is shared by many departments around the country.
First, the question about Men's Central's physical structure. As one of the articles points out, the building is constructed in dormitory style: “Many of the floors are made up of long corridors lined with cells, making it impossible to see into any one cell without standing directly in front of it. From a supervision standpoint, Men's Central Jail is a nightmare.” This is no way to build a facility meant to supervise inmates–especially one, like a county jail, comprised of a mix of pretrial inmates, those serving short sentences for misdemeanors or as terms of felony probation, and those awaiting hearings on parole violations. Most facilities throughout the country–indeed, even the Twin Towers jails across the street from Men's Central–are constructed using some variation of the “panopticon” design first suggested by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the end of the 18th Century. That design called for a central observation tower encircled by backlit cells, so that the jail can observe the inmates individually and as a group simultaneously, thus decreasing the incidence of inmate-on-inmate abuse. As an added bonus, it prevents rogue jailers from being isolated from the view of other jailers with individual inmates, thus decreasing jailer abuse as well. That the County of Los Angeles has refused every call to replace Men's Central with a more modern design, while finding funds for all sorts of other projects, reflects an appalling lack of concern for a large swath of its citizenry. It also suggests that it is only when LA's citizens come together to demand Men's Central's closure that anything will be done.
One fact often overlooked when discussions turn to the subject of the nation's jails is that many of their inhabitants have not been convicted of any crime. Instead, as every criminal defense attorney well knows, those pretrial detainees are sitting in jail because they have not been able to make bail. A perusal through LA County's felony bail schedule–the chart that tells judges and jailers what the “presumptively reasonable” bail amount should be for most alleged offenses–shows why: $1m if you are accused of committing lewd acts with a victim under the age of 14, when bodily harm is alleged, $50k for church or cemetery vandalism, $100k for human trafficking, $200k for shooting at an inhabited dwelling, etc.
The California Constitution includes a right to bail, at Article 1, section 12. However, the Legislature has chipped away at that right, by way of statutes like Penal Code section 1269b(e), requiring a bail schedule, section 1270.1, requiring a hearing before bail is set at any amount other than the schedule in cases involving alleged serious or violent felonies, and section 1275, requiring judges setting, reducing or denying bail, to consider “the protection of the public, the seriousness of the offense charged, the previous criminal record of the defendant, and the probability of his or her appearing at trial or hearing on the case.” One factor that, astoundingly, judges are not explicitly required to consider, is really oftentimes the single most important factor, which is, how much money the defendant has. It is really simple if you think about it: it will hurt a defendant who makes $20k per year just as much (if not more) to lose $2k if he skips bail as it will hurt a defendant who makes $200k per year to lose $20k if he skips bail.
Bail was originally intended as a way to make sure that a defendant shows up for his or her court appearances, but the schedules and requirements that judges consider other factors in setting bail have resulted in bail being used, in almost every case, as pre-conviction punishment. The result is a place like Men's Central.
Finally, a point I haven't seen discussed by those in engaged in the study of penological systems. The LA County Sheriff, like many jailers across the country, regularly staffs its jails with newly deputized employees. These green deputies, by their very nature, have less experience interacting with, for lack of a better term, the criminal element. So it is easy to imagine the relationship that gets established when these green, often testosterone-filled deputies are asked to supervise those whose whole lives have been devoted to thwarting supervision, in a place notorious for being un-supervisable: they act aggressively and abuse their power. It has become such a problem at Men's Central that prison guard gangs have developed, such as described in this recent article: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/may/09/local/la-me-0510-banks-20110510. It begs the question, why not instead staff your jails with veterans, maybe those deputies nearing the end of their careers, who have become adept at dealing with so-called “criminals” in a more neutral environment–the street–who know more about the social strata at work, and who are more able to navigate such a highly power-centric environment without resorting to brute force? I imagine that the answer to that question has something to do with the power of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Professional Association, the union that acts on behalf of the deputies. By most accounts, working at the jail is the least sought-after position among deputies, so it is no surprise that those lowest on the totem pole would get that assignment.
It appears that, as with so many problems, there is no easy solution to the problem of Men's Central. But there are certainly at least three methods of attacking the problem. As a person who has seen in multitudes of faces the fear on the face of a person about to be shipped to Men's Central, or on his way back from that facility, I can only hope that a solution is not far off.