The ACLU Struck a ‘Landmark’ Prison Reform Deal in Los Angeles

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  • The ACLU struck an agreement with Los Angeles County Jails to address “inhumane” conditions.
  • The county must now take steps to decarcerate people with mental illness and address overpopulation.
  • The “landmark” agreement will set a precedent for nationwide prison reform, experts told Insider.

When one mother finally got a call from her son for the first time after he was arrested and brought to a Los Angeles jail 10 days earlier, she was braced for the worst.

“I thought it was going to be bad,” she told Insider. “And it was.”

Her son was being held in the Inmate Reception Center, a male-designated intake and release facility for incarcerated individuals. After making an arrest, the Inmate Reception Center is the first place police take someone before they are assigned to another county jail.

“I’ve read that this facility is not a good place to be, putting it mildly,” she added.

Her son was first jailed on June 14, just days before a federal judge approved an agreement to resolve an ongoing lawsuit over prison conditions between the ACLU of Southern California and several entities that manage Los Angeles County jails.

The agreement has been almost 50 years in the making and experts say it could impact prisons nationwide.

“It’s a landmark to have made this agreement,” Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project, told Insider.

The agreement seeks to address what attorneys from the ACLU have called “inhumane” conditions at the Inmate Reception Center. The case addresses issues of overcrowding and mental health treatment, a precedent that could be used in future prison reform and decarceration efforts around the country, experts with the ACLU told Insider. 

“The settlement is an important step in addressing issues that have long plagued county correctional facilities, but for which we are committed to addressing,” a spokesperson for the LA County Sheriff’s Department told Insider.

A push for decarceration 

In order to address what the ACLU identified as unacceptable conditions and overpopulation at the Inmate Reception Center, the agreement requires the county to address overpopulation by creating 1,691 new non-carceral beds outside of the prison system — as opposed to a carceral bed, or involuntary incarceration — for people with mental illness. The county will also add about 500 non-carceral beds for those found incompetent to stand trial, according to the agreement. 

For Kendrick, this means a change for law enforcement in how they treat people with mental health conditions.

“As part of that, that’s going to require a reorientation amongst law enforcement and the like. If there’s someone who needs mental health services, you don’t arrest them,” Kendrick said.

Meanwhile, the agreement also states that the Inmate Reception Center must screen for and prescribe mental health medication to those incarcerated within 24 hours of their arrival, as well as increase the number of mental health staff and support resources available.

The agreement also requires the Inmate Reception Center to uphold a 24-hour limit on detaining people before finding them a permanent assignment at another Los Angeles County jail. 

Prison reform advocates have long called for improved mental health services like these to promote decarceration and decrease jail populations. 

The Vera Institute of Justice — an organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration in the United States — has called on prison systems nationwide to implement the very same measures guaranteed by this agreement: building mental health treatment resources in the community and focusing efforts on reducing the incarceration rates of those with mental illness. 

While policymakers in other jurisdictions have successfully implemented decarceration strategies to limit jail populations, Los Angeles County is home to the largest jail system in the United States. As such, this agreement marks a push for decarceration in a prison system of unprecedented size.

As the county begins to implement these new measures, prison reform advocates and policymakers may have a new case study for how decarceration efforts can play out in a large-scale prison system.

“There will still be many locked up, unfortunately. But it sets a precedent for other parts of the country, in other systems, that it is more cost-effective and there’s no danger to public safety in terms of creating alternatives to incarceration,” Kendrick told Insider.

‘Inhumane’ conditions 

When attorneys from the ACLU visited the Inmate Reception Center throughout 2022 and early 2023, they gathered testimony from incarcerated people who described deplorable and unsafe conditions.

“I interviewed one man who had been on the front bench for 99 hours,” Melissa Camacho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, told Insider. “I saw bruises and scratching on his wrists that were consistent with having been there for 99 hours.”

This “front bench” is a seating area in view of deputies where those deemed a danger to themselves or others are placed. It was a target of the agreement, Camacho said. The agreement says those incarcerated at the Inmate Reception Center cannot be chained to benches or chairs in this area for longer than four hours. 

“I saw people laying in puddles of urine while chained to the front bench, and I saw a person on the front bench stand up and try to pee into a carton,” Camacho said. “A really horrific experience for the people chained to the front bench, and for the other people in the Inmate Reception Center having to see people treated so inhumanely.”

Kendrick said that the ACLU collected declarations from people who had to go weeks or months before seeing a psychiatrist to receive mental health medication they took prior to their incarceration. 

“40% of suicides in jails happen in the first week a person is incarcerated and a quarter of those happen in the first few days,” Kendrick said. “That’s why it’s so critically important. This agreement will hopefully prevent suffering, if not death.”

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department did not comment on specific allegations of mistreatment.

“The safety and security of the people within our jails is of the utmost importance to us and we will continue to provide the best care possible for them,” a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said. 

A half-century legal battle

The ACLU of Southern California first sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff in 1975 on behalf of all incarcerated people in county jails, alleging they were experiencing cruel and unusual punishment in these facilities.

The June 22 agreement is the culmination of prison reform efforts since Rutherford v. Pitchess, the original 1975 case. This agreement shares the same plaintiff — Dennis Rutherford — and carries on the work first undertaken nearly 50 years ago.

The June 22 agreement came after the ACLU filed a complaint against the county in September 2022, seeking a preliminary injunction and emergency restraining order against the county for allegations of inhumane conditions in the Inmate Reception Center. After the county agreed to address these conditions that same month, ACLU attorneys visited the jails throughout the coming months and found conditions had not improved, according to Kendrick.

As a result, the ACLU of Southern California filed a complaint against the county in February, claiming they were in contempt of the September 2022 court order. The June 22 agreement settles their February filing and further forces the county to address conditions in the Inmate Reception Center, Kendrick said.

The defendants in the case reached beyond the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which directly oversees jail operations in the county. The ACLU also named the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors as a defendant. For Camacho, the Board of Supervisors is significant because they have more authority to undertake the reforms that address decarceration and jail overpopulation at its roots — such as reducing the pre-trial jail population and increasing the number of mental health supervisors in the community.

“A lot of that is on the Board of Supervisors, not the Sheriff’s Department, so it’s significant they’re both defendants in this case,” Camacho said.

The County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors did not respond to a request for comment. 

Overall, Camacho said she is hopeful that the agreement will result in a concerted effort to depopulate Los Angeles County jails.

“What makes me hopeful is that the county is now taking seriously the need to decarcerate,” Camacho said. “Because only by addressing the root overcrowding cause can they break the cycle of horrific conditions in the Inmate Reception Center.”

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