ACLU Charges LA County Failing Court-Ordered Fixes to Jail, Claims Incarcerated ‘Continue to Suffer’

PC: Cedric Letsch
Via Unsplash

By Michael McCutcheon and Ivan Villegas

LOS ANGELES, CA – Los Angeles County was in the hot seat this week as U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson presided over a status hearing on full compliance with a 2014 settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Judge Pregerson also presided over an additional case this day brought by the ACLU about the conditions in a local correctional facility.

The hearing concerned the status of a 2015 federal class-action lawsuit, Rosas v. Baca, in which it was alleged that the command staff of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, under the leadership of Lee Baca, had condoned and ignored a long pattern of violence by deputies against those incarcerated individuals.

In 2014, the ACLU of Southern California, along with the law firm of Paul Hastings LLP, secured a historic settlement with the Sheriff’s Department, agreeing to adopt an extensive plan to address the handling of use of force violations; the plan was subject to court oversight and enforcement.

Peter Eliasberg from the ACLU of Southern California, representing the plaintiffs, reassured the judge that the Sheriff’s Department had made significant progress per the settlement.

However, Eliasberg added the three court-appointed monitors in the settlement tasked with reviewing the process, “were concerned that in other areas [where there had been no progress] there was a plateauing or perhaps even a regression.”

Eliasberg explained the monitors raised four areas of concern on the part of the Sheriff’s Department: excessive and unnecessary use of headstrikes, failure of the department personnel to use force prevention measures, failure of properly following a specific de-escalation process, and, lastly, a concern about overuse and unsafe use of a new restraint device.

Although the department had made significant changes, including creating a “dedicated force review unit,” Eliasberg argued “there are areas, from our perspective, where we either don’t have complete agreement or we’re quite far apart with the department.”

Eliasberg then said that the main area of disagreement with the department was that they were finding a lot of inappropriate uses of force, “and the supervisors are not finding violations. Or when they do, the discipline meted out is substantially simply not sufficient for the gravity of the offense that we believe has occurred.”

Because of this, Eliasberg said that they were recommending mandatory punishment for certain headstrike uses of force violations, which the department was flat out rejecting.

Eliasberg concluded that “we’ve been going at this for a while, and at a certain point I think we both recognize that we’re kind of at a stalemate on some important issues and we’d love some guidance from the court as how you think best [to proceed].”

Judge Pregerson then turned to the defense, represented by Robert Dugdale from the law firm Kendall Brill & Kelly LLP.

Dugdale, presenting the county/law enforcement, admitted “there has been substantial progress made, not only in terms of our negotiations in the past year, but in decreasing uses of force in the jail in the past year.”

Dugdale then reassured the judge that, regarding the incidents of headstrikes, video evidence was made readily available to the monitors and the plaintiffs to ensure accuracy and transparency.

The defense then said that there were more issues they could continue to work on, saying that “we have some minor issues that we may be able to clear up…I must say I think there is very little chance that we will agree to mandatory minimum penalties.”

Judge Pregerson, wanting to wrap things up, said “let’s get it done. So if we have another status conference, are we going to be right back here talking about this impasse? Because you’ve said, ‘I don’t see any movement,’ the ACLU has said ‘we don’t see any movement.’”

Dugdale then reassured the judge that the Sheriff’s Department wanted to resolve the issue just as much as the plaintiffs did, and that the new sheriff was positive toward this resolving this issue, “so we have a new tone at the top on this agreement, particularly, to make sure that we’re trying to do the right thing.”

Judge Pregerson set the next status hearing in six weeks, on May 31: “Really what I’m saying is in six weeks I need cross motions on the remaining issues in this case, and they will include whatever issues have not been resolved.”

Additionally, Judge Pregerson also heard the case of Rutherford vs. Los Angeles et al., which has a rich judicial history dating back to 1975. Since its initial ruling, the case has served as one of the judicial mechanisms for instituting and imposing ethical standards in correctional facilities.

Currently, the ACLU has asked Judge Pregerson to find the LA Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s Department in contempt of court and order sanctions as they have failed to abide by the requirements of a Preliminary Injunction (PI) set in place in Aug. of 2022.

The ACLU has accused the defendants of keeping inmates in the LA Inmate Reception Center (IRC) for longer than the legally permitted limit of 24 hours, locking up inmates in holding cells against judicial order, unhygienic conditions, insufficient access to medications and general lack of adequate medical care, and chaining inmates to a bench for periods longer than four hours.

On the chaining of inmates, Attorney Corene Kendrick, representing the Plaintiff (ACLU), noted that at last two men had collapsed and died in the spring and summer of 2022 due to the chaining and that, for that specific allegation, the defendants agreed that it was “lamentably true.”

“People are continuing to suffer in the IRC,” said Attorney Kendrick, “and we have met our burden to show widespread violations of the PI and defendants have failed to show, categorically and in detail, all reasonable steps they took to comply and avoid violations…We’ve asked the court to put defendants on notice of per diem sanctions for future violations of the PI in order to incentivize them.”

She continued, “Yet, in their opposition, the defendants have already declared defeat, and they state, ‘neither a contempt finding, nor the fine schedule plaintiffs have proposed would meaningfully improve defendants’ compliance with the PI beyond the steps defendants have already taken.’ Defendants telling the court that their adherence to an order or avoiding is futile is, in it of itself, the definition of contempt.”

“Defendants’ own records confirm that in the first seven weeks of this year, 367 different people were chained to the front bench for more than four hours, many for upwards of 15 to 20 hours. In the first two weeks of March alone, more than 100 people were chained to the front bench for over four hours, and at least 358 people were locked in IRC holding cells in excess of 12 hours in just two weeks in March,” Kendrick added.

“The PI contains much more than a 24-hour limit. They barely contested the evidence that we presented of violations with the other requirements. Such as chaining people to the front bench for no more than four hours, not locking people in IRC holding cells, or to not place people in unhygienic conditions without access to functioning toilets, food, and water,” Kendrick said.

In particular, Feb. 2023 was argued to be the most egregious month in terms of mental health evaluation efficacy and chaining up inmates.

While Defense Attorney Dugdale argued February was an aberration due to sudden and unforeseen staffing issues which caused a reduction in mental healthcare staff by 33 percent, ACLU Attorney Kendrick rebutted these kinds of aberrations seem to occur three or four times a year, which makes them fairly regular.

On the staffing issue, Judge Pregerson stated, “That’s not going to be a good reason in the future. It’s just not…If you had a big, long track record of everything being done really, really well and you have a blip, no one’s going to go crazy, so you need that track record first.”

Attorney Kendrick further alleged that the IRC was also failing to meet the 24-hour time limit for holding inmates.

Kendrick noted that the IRC had created several overflow units where they could move people between to circumvent any violation. “Even defendants’ own filing,” she said, “showed that they were able to comply with the 24-hour time frame only one out of every four days from late September to the end of February.”

In response, Attorney Dugdale argued it was a necessity created by the system due to overcrowding, as there have been too many felony cases in which defendants have been ruled incapable of standing trial and that has created a backlog for the IRC.

Kendrick said, by the Plaintiff’s own admission, the State has been unable to effectively retrieve and transport inmates from the IRC and into State Prison due to a lack of room. Yet, despite these issues, Dugdale asserts the IRC population levels are below pre-pandemic levels and are still trending downwards as they take further actions to reduce their population.

He also noted additional measures the IRC is taking to try and abide by the PI requirements. One of these is updating their data collection system as early as next week, as their current system has a lot of missing data.

As Attorney Dugdale stated, “If you don’t know what’s happening, you can’t prevent these violations, and I’m not saying people were completely ignorant of what was going on and weren’t monitoring these things, but this is a much more precise way to do so.”

With the new data system, the ACLU would also be able to monitor the data in real time as opposed to the eight-hour cycle currently in place.

“The horror for me would be if this gets gamed,” stated Judge Pregerson. “It got gamed in the past – people were sitting in patrol cars in the parking lot. There were all sorts of ways to prevent people from logging into the IRC. If that happens again, if this gets gamed, I’m going to be very upset about it…It hasn’t happened for a long time. I don’t want it to ever happen again.”

The defense also contested the ACLU’s claim that inmates had inadequate access to medication, noting the IRC would prescribe medication and make it readily-accessible as necessary. Attorney Dugdale did note that if there was no record that the inmate had taken the drug within the last 30 days, then the IRC would not provide it.

Lastly, on the claim of unsanitary conditions, Attorney Dugdale described it as “a massive challenge” and that “it’s difficult because of the way people process through there.”

Judge Pregerson interrupted, “It’s difficult but it needs to be fixed.” As the defense started listing various reasons for the unsanitary conditions, Judge Pregerson interrupted again, “I mean, those are all reasons but…they have to be sanitary period. At all times. Period…It just needs to get done. Period. Period…That’s it. Period.”

Attorney Dugdale responded that the IRC had a thorough sanitation and accompanying employment plan that would fix the issue of unsanitary conditions, though he did not give a timeline for enacting the plan.

Judge Pregerson continued to exert pressure, “That needed to be done yesterday,” he said. “I mean, period. I don’t want to say anything more about it. There’s no excuse for subjecting people to unsanitary conditions, period.

“Is it your position that the defendants are currently complying with all material aspects of the preliminary injunction issued by this court?” Judge Pregerson asked Attorney Dugdale.

“No, that’s not our position,” he answered. “There are certainly variances between what the court is requiring and what is happening.”

“So you’re not complying with the terms of the preliminary injunction, but you think that the ACLU may not have reached the reasonableness or failed to show that you’ve taken all reasonable measures standard?” asked the judge.

“I think that is fair your Honor, especially given recent and, not only recent but, now-month long corrective actions that have been taken,” Attorney Dugdale concluded.

Judge Pregerson ultimately ruled that the contempt motion would be stayed until a formal evidentiary hearing could be held in 60 days.

About The Author

Michael is a senior at CSU Long Beach majoring in Criminology and Criminal Justice. After graduating with a BS, Michael plans to attend grad school and receive his Masters with a thesis on interrogation techniques.

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