By Amy Berberyan and Citlalli Florez
LOS ANGELES. CA –An emergency court filing by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California last week found the Inmate Reception Center (IRC) was not only confining people in abysmal conditions but violating decades of court orders.
The plaintiffs in the filing, known as Rutherford v. Villanueva, are asking for an Ex Parte Application for a Temporary Restraining Order and Order to Show Cause Re Preliminary Injunction.
The ACLU’s emergency filing asks for the court to order Los Angeles County to limit IRC detainment to 24 hours maximum, and to improve conditions for detainees.
On Sept. 2, the ACLU attorney contacted the county’s counsel, who advised that the defendants of the current case, the sheriff of Los Angeles County and the County of Los Angeles, would not stipulate a TRO (Temporary Restraining Order) and would oppose it “at this time.”
ACLU attorneys visited the IRC, also known as the Los Angeles County Jail’s booking center, during the months ranging from June to Sept. Their attorneys, Melissa Camacho-Cheung and Peter Eliasberg, spoke with the people detained there and witnessed many of what they call inhumane conditions plaguing the IRC.
Individuals detained in the facility reported IRC staff began cleaning when they heard the ACLU would be present. One individual said, “The only time they did a decent cleaning was about an hour before the ACLU came.”
Conditions in the IRC included people with severe mental illnesses being chained to their chairs for days on end, noted the ACLU. They would sleep while sitting up. Others slept together on the concrete floor, where they’d be crammed head-to-foot with one another.
Severe hygiene problems were found, added the ACLU, including people defecating in trash cans. Similarly, people were urinating on floors or empty containers; this occurred in shared spaces. Floors were full of litter, sinks and toilets were overflowing, and people who were detained lacked access to showers, hygiene products, and clean clothing, claimed the ACLU.
Similarly, added the ACLU, most of these detainees were not able to access adequate drinking water and food on a regular basis. It was reported that sustenance was limited to orange juice, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and burritos, a diet the ACLU said is harmful to those who are diabetic or allergic to peanuts.
Other issues observed per the ACLU report in the IRC include overcrowding, limited access to or absence of trash cans, lack of ventilation, detainment lasting multiple days, detainees being forced to miss court, and failure to provide healthcare to individuals detoxing from drugs or alcohol.
Overcrowding and sleep deprivation also led to increased risks of fighting, use of force, and death among detainees, explained the ACLU.
According to the ACLU, one schizophrenic detainee, Jhean Banos, suffered cuts and bruises on his wrists from likely being “cuffed for more than 99 hours.” This occurred when he was held at the IRC for over four days.
Celia Banos, Jhean’s mother, said, “My son’s mental health is not a crime. Instead of providing him with the treatment he needs from health professionals, the county resorts to locking him up without care and without his medication.”
The ACLU said most people held at the IRC are homeless, experience severe mental illness, or both. After being arrested by law enforcement, they are taken to the IRC with the intention of getting transferred to another facility within 24 hours.
Deaths have been reported in the IRC. In April, a man was found unresponsive and died. In June, a 72-year-old man collapsed and died after being held for two additional days without medical evaluation.
The coordinator of the JusticeLA Coalition, Ambrose Brooks S., stated, “L.A. County’s horrific treatment of people in the jails is egregious but sadly comes as no surprise. As we’ve seen time and time again, incarcerating people is never the answer to people experiencing houselessness, poverty, or unmet mental health needs.”
Ever since the ruling in Rutherford v. Pitchess in 1978, where a federal court judge found that numerous jail conditions in the L.A. County Jails violated the prisoners’ constitutional rights, jail conditions have been considered a problematic court oversight, he added.
Rutherford v. Pitchess was a trial that occurred after the ACLU Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) sued both Los Angeles County and its 1975 sheriff, Peter Pitchess.
The judge presiding over the 1975 case, District Judge William P. Gray, Jr., stated that the conditions “present poor examples of the civilized standards and concepts of dignity, humanity and decency” and found the conditions to be, “constitutionally intolerable.”
It was claimed, said jail critics, the conditions detainees faced violated the Eighth Amendment with regard to exposing prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment. Furthermore, the Fourteenth Amendment’s safeguarding of pretrial detainees was abused.
Many similar court orders have been issued over the years which the IRC has repeatedly violated. Such violations have also been repeatedly overlooked, critics added.
“The L.A. County Jail system is a national disgrace,” said Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “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.”
There are arguments that the solution to this issue relies on getting the county to invest in incarceration alternatives.
Melissa Camacho-Cheung, senior staff attorney at the ACLU SoCal, said, “The county supervisors have long touted a ‘Care First, Jails Last’ approach, but have failed to make any meaningful investments in community-based alternatives to incarceration.”
She added, “We know what works for our neighbors and family members who are suffering: community-based programming that provides people with case management, stable housing, medical and mental health care, and support.”