Crime & Justice

Jail abuse: Next sheriff will inherit reformed jail, but problems remain

Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. (file photo)
Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. (file photo)

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Voters go to the polls on Tuesday to cast votes for the new Los Angeles County Sheriff, who will inherit a department in transition, including a jail that has undergone a host of reforms in the wake of a scandal that revealed widespread abuses.

A year and a half ago — after a slew of news reports, Op-Eds and FBI investigations into jail abuse — a Blue Ribbon Commission released a report finding dozens of issues at L.A. County's jails, including deputy misconduct that officials said resulted in a "culture of violence” in the jails.

In the months since the report came out, the Sheriff’s Department has taken steps to clean up the jails.

RELATED: KPCC's coverage of the race for L.A. County Sheriff

Among the reforms: A system of video surveillance, like the hundreds of cameras that show every nook and cranny of the downtown Twin Towers Correctional Facility. This system didn’t exist a few years ago; now it’s in all three of the downtown jails.

The cameras are there to keep an eye on any potential abuse. “Ninety-plus percent of all force incidents are now captured on these cameras,” said Mike Gennaco, the head of the Office of Independent Review, whose job it is to shine a light on how the Sheriff’s Department runs the jails.

Since the reforms, from 2012-'13, the number of incidents in which jail deputies restrained or injured inmates went down 23 percent.

Knowing they were always on camera altered deputy behavior, said former inmate Steve Rogers.

“When I first got there, the deputies were really physical with the inmates,” Rogers said. He was incarcerated in the Twin Towers for a drug charge from 2012 to early 2014. He remembers when the cameras went in.

“As the cameras went up, that kind of changed where they couldn’t physically put hands on you," Rogers recalled. "So they had to find other ways to control the way people act in there.”

How much have things changed?

"Left to their own devices"

Before the scrutiny on the jails, “deputies were often left to their own devices," Gennaco said. "Many deputies performed well under that situation, but the lack of supervision caused some deputies to go off the rails. And I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve had the problems we’ve had.”

How to address those problems has been at the center of the first competitive race for sheriff L.A. county has seen in decades. All seven candidates have weighed in with their solutions.

Patrisse Cullors, an activist who’s pushing for stronger civilian oversight over the Sheriff’s Department, agreed that things have changed. “The guards are less aggressive. That there’s clearly some sort of outside entity that’s pushing them to behave differently,” she said.

These last couple of years in the spotlight have forced the jails to move towards reforming their culture, Cullors said. But when things quiet down, the election ends and the media goes away, she worries the pace of reform could slow.

 “If we sit on this and we don’t keep a spotlight on it, in five years we will hear about the same rogue deputies, we will hear about the same culture of corruption, because it’s so insidious,” Cullors said.

For his part, former inmate Rogers said the reforms don't mean that the "culture of violence" is completely gone.

Though there's less physical abuse, deputies "might turn off the phones so no one can talk to their kids and say, ‘Hey, it was because of that guy,’" Rogers said. "Or the cold water might be all that’s available for two, three weeks. There’s a lot of abuse that happens that’s not physical.”

Cullors says it’ll be up to the new sheriff to put systems in place to keep the department headed towards reform. And it’ll be up to the public to hold him accountable.