Calling for control
Coalition wants more civilian oversight of Sheriff’s Department during prison realignment
By Katie Madden 07/17/2013
With the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department currently under fire for allowing deputy-related violence against inmates — all as more nonviolent and nonsexual offenders are being sent to county lockups instead of prison — criminal justice reform advocates say now is the time to increase civilian oversight of the massive law enforcement agency.
“Currently, the Sheriff’s Department has multiple oversight bodies, none of which have any sort of legal powers or longstanding power to hold the department accountable,” said Patrisse Cullors, lead organizer of the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails, a group comprised of community organizations, health care providers, clergy, attorneys, community residents and friends and family members of inmates.
A panelist at a recent ACLU-sponsored forum on court-ordered prison realignment, Cullors recalled how her brother suffered at the hands of deputies during a year-long incarceration in 1999.
“He was beaten so badly that he blacked out, and when he awoke he was in a pool of his own blood, handcuffed to a bed post. He was denied meals for up to two weeks. He was left on a concrete floor without a mat. This sounds like an exaggeration, but this is reality,” Cullors said.
During the July 9 forum at Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, participants focused mostly on prison realignment, which requires the state to sentence low-level offenders to lockups in the counties in which they committed their misdeeds instead of state prison.
In April, a three-judge panel consisting of district judges Lawrence Karlton and Thelton Henderson and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Steven Reinhardt gave Gov. Jerry Brown three weeks to submit a plan for meeting the prison reduction goal of nearly 10,000 more prisoners by the end of the year. In 2011, the three judges ordered Brown to begin the realignment process, a decision upheld by the US Supreme Court. Since 2006, according to the Sacramento Bee, 46,000 inmates have been let out of the state’s 33 prisons, with 25,000 prisoners being released in the past four years. The judges ordered the populations of state prisons, which now hold about 119,000 inmates and are 150 percent over capacity, to be reduced by 137.5 percent, meaning another 9,500 inmates must be released by the end of the year, according to Time magazine’s online edition.
Last week, KPCC 89.3 FM reported that former Gov. Gray Davis, along with Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian supported Brown’s request to delay the release, writing their appeal to US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who oversees judicial appeals in the Western states. Their friend-of-the-court brief states freeing more inmates “threatens the people of California with grave and irreparable harm from increased crime.”
Brown had asked the judges for a stay of the order until after he was able to be heard by the US Supreme Court, but, according to KPCC, his request was denied due to the state’s long history of noncompliance in the area of prison reform.
In order to meet the expected increases in county inmates and inmate care, Sheriff Lee Baca, who like most law enforcement officials strenuously opposes realignment, is proposing to build and update jail facilities, a plan estimated to cost taxpayers between $1.37 billion to $1.62 billion.
By 2011, the Pasadena Weekly reported that more than 500 former prison inmates had already been released back into the local community. Pasadena officials, following a successful program used in East Palo Alto, which provides community-based resources and job training for parolees to reduce recidivism rates, formed the Pasadena Altadena Community Team (PACT) through the Flintridge Foundation.
“We wanted to get the stigma changed of being a parolee,” Pasadena Police Deputy Chief Darryl Qualls told Weekly reporter Carl Kozlowski. “If a person did time and wanted to change, we would help them, and so we started the parole integration and an education program.”
At the forum, the Rev. Peter Laarman, administrative factotum for Justice Not Jails, a faith-based organization that works against what the group calls “racialized mass incarceration in California,” addressed some of misconceptions plaguing low-level offenders, which include nonviolent, nonsexual felons who are typically black, Latino and poor.
“The hysterical mainstream corporate media has said this is the release of dangerous felons into our streets. That’s not what it is,” Laarman said of the realignment program.
Laarman expressed disappointment in District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s silence on issues such as split sentencing, which would allow prisoners to serve part of their sentences behind bars and part of the time under supervision outside of jail, where inmates are given more opportunities to reintegrate into society.
Esther Lim, director of the ACLU of Southern California’s Jails Project, emphasized that she and other panelists were focused on primarily pre-trial prisoners who have not yet been convicted. Lim said that out of the current 18,000 to 19,000 LA County jail inmates, 54 percent are pre-trial and a vast majority are black and Latino. These inmates, she said, are subjected to “horrible conditions” from deputy-on-inmate violence, deputy-instigated violence, overcrowding, poor health care services and an environment that “promotes mental illness.”
Several of these abuses were uncovered by the ACLU in a 2011 investigation that included more than 70 sworn declarations from prisoners, a chaplain, a jail tutor and Lim herself, who said she actually witnessed two deputies pummeling an inmate who was not moving. The ACLU has been the court-appointed monitor of county jails for the past three decades.
Last Friday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors released an assessment conducted by Vanir Construction Management that found several facilities, like the half-century old Men’s Central Jail, are in “critical need” of being closed and demolished. Lim said such a move would incur a large cost to LA taxpayers and do little to help the issues Lim and the ACLU are concerned about, primarily realignment of prisoners through means of split sentencing instead of pushing them into other facilities.
Dick Price, president of the ACLU-Southern California Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and his wife, Sharon Kyle, communications chair for the chapter, organized the forum. Price explained how problems with the Sheriff’s Department impact Pasadena and unincorporated Altadena, which is patrolled by sheriff’s deputies. “It’s an LA and Pasadena issue,” Price explained. “Pasadena deputies are first trained in the LA prisons and it affects police practices here.”
Attendees, most of them from Pasadena, expressed their ideas, stories and concerns, many of which revolved around unfair and disproportionate incarceration and treatment of people of color, a need for more community engagement in civilian oversight and realistic approaches to holding the Sheriff’s Department accountable.
Cullors said abuse and inadequate physical and psychiatric care led to her brother developing schizoaffective disorder, which he still suffers with today. His story, which Cullors says is among “hundreds of others just like it,” is what initially sparked her interest in giving a voice to prisoners affected by sheriff violence.
Formed in August 2012, the coalition is “a grassroots multiracial organization bringing together community organizations, health providers, clergy, attorneys, community residents, friends and families and survivors of the brutality inside L.A. jails to fight for real accountability,” a goal they plan to achieve through the creation of an independent civilian review board, states the group’s Web site.
“The vision of our civilian review board is that it would have independent investigative power, the power to discipline officers and subpoena power, and it would significantly reflect the people inside the jails,” Cullors said.
“This is the moment people should be seizing,” Cullors said. “The media is finally looking at sheriff violence; it’s in the news everyday now. We have the capability to intervene and leave a legacy of holding the Sheriff’s Department accountable.”