LA County jails will never get better if we don’t intervene now

One of the cruelest jail systems in the nation is right under our noses, but why hasn’t it improved after a 50-year legal battle?

(Noah Pinales / Daily Trojan)

I’ve never been incarcerated. I haven’t even gotten a traffic ticket. My closest encounter with incarceration comes from the mornings I spend at Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail as an intern for the Public Defender’s Office, thanks to USC’s Agents of Change. Even there, I’m separated from the actual reality of what it is like to be in jail by a few walls and floors. The worst thing I’ll ever have to deal with while at the MCJ is the smell of fresh paint on the walls. 

None of this, of course, is the reality of people actually living in jails just like the MCJ across the country. 

To the credit of this new era of heightened scrutiny on our carceral systems, small steps are being taken to right some of the most egregious wrongs happening behind bars. Earlier this summer, the United States Department of Justice notably announced an investigation of Atlanta’s Fulton County jail a year after an incarcerated man named Lashawn Thompson died “covered in lice and filth.” 

And yet, on the other side of the nation in L.A. County correctional facilities, 30 in-custody deaths have been reported — with nine deaths reported at Men’s Central Jail alone — with no federal investigation into them on the horizon.

Now, these numbers seem low at first glance. Perhaps in the age we live in, we’ve been desensitized to death unless the toll rings in at a high number, but let me put it into perspective for you: Compared to New York City’s Department of Correction facilities, which counts the infamous Rikers Island jail — referred to as a “torture chamber” by one former inmate — as a part of its system, you’ll come to find that L.A. County’s numbers trump New York’s. 

The strong arm of justice certainly exists, and the Department of Justice’s investigation into Fulton County proves that much to be true. The bitter truth, though, is that it hardly ever reaches westward. Whether the federal government’s bigwigs have put on blinders willingly or not, the lack of a prompt DOJ investigation into the conditions that pre-trial detainees have had to face in L.A. County jails is just outrageous. 

For defenders of the L.A. jail system, there might be an argument to be made that L.A. County correctional facilities are on the mend. At the state level, the California Senate is already considering bill SB-519, which would implement “detention monitors” in jails and expand accessibility to in-custody death reports. However, like all things government, the bill got watered down after the law enforcement lobby intervened. 

What’s more, L.A. County did settle with the American Civil Lliberties Union of Southern California in a lawsuit that establishes new, stricter standards for jail cleanliness and mental health care. But it should stop you dead in your tracks when I tell you that this settlement has come after nearly half a century of fettering in the legal system, with one failed attempt after another by the county to resolve issues within the jail. In any other case, 50 years of foot-dragging should be a cause for extreme concern and prompt intervention. However, in L.A. County, it is business as usual. 

I brought up the Fulton County jail investigation earlier not to inject a bit of Southerness to this piece, though Southern politics is all this column is about; I bring it up because, just like L.A. County jails, these decrepit carceral systems too often disproportionately claim Black and Latine lives, especially those that live near these jails. In L.A., this is especially dangerous. 

It is dangerous because we already heard how former City Council members spoke of our Black and Oaxacan neighbors behind closed doors when they thought nobody was listening, and when we did, Angelenos took to the halls of power. Now, in the L.A. County jail system, we have a situation where those same neighbors are being actively harmed. Make no mistake: The treatment of those in county jails is a violent continuation of the bold-faced racism we’ve seen from county officials.

So now you see: The cruelty shown to those detained at these two jail systems are not much different from one another — after all, cruelty knows no regional bounds. In Fulton County, there’s at least a sliver of hope for better conditions for those awaiting trial or sentencing. There can be hope in L.A. too, if more of us start showing up to support the activists on the ground who have long drawn attention to this issue. 

You can take the first step by joining the JusticeLA coalition outside of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors meeting every Tuesday, or dial in to give a strong public comment. But until we take action, we’ll just be tiptoeing around a killing machine.

Quynh Anh Nguyen is a senior writing about the implications of current Southern political events. Her column, “I Reckon,” runs every other Tuesday.

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