A United Nations human rights group is touring Los Angeles county jails on Friday, bringing international scrutiny to a detention system criticized for overcrowding, mistreatment and abuse of people with mental illnesses, and conditions described by civil rights groups as “barbaric”.
A panel of experts appointed by the UN human rights council and formed after the murder of George Floyd is visiting LA as part of a two-week trip to cities across the US examining racial justice and police violence. In California, the investigators will meet with families of people killed by police and formerly incarcerated people. They will also enter the LA county jail system, the largest in the country, which is run by the LA sheriff’s department (LASD).
The jails, which house roughly 14,000 people, have been mired in scandals for decades, but have faced growing national outrage over reports of violence by guards, systemic misconduct and racism, medical neglect, preventable deaths, extended use of solitary confinement, unsanitary cells and other conditions that civil rights leaders say amount to torture.
Advocates for incarcerated people have repeatedly warned of a humanitarian catastrophe behind bars over the last year, even after a federal judge in September 2022 ordered the LASD to address civil rights violations and four US senators raised concerns about the “appalling” crisis.
In the summer of 2022, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has ongoing LA jail litigation dating back to the 1970s, visited the jail system’s booking facility, known as the inmate reception center (IRC), and documented that people with serious mental illnesses were chained to chairs for days and were forced to sleep sitting upright. Dozens were crammed sleeping head-to-foot on concrete floors. People were defecating in trash cans and had no access to showers or clean clothes for days. Detainees also lacked adequate access to drinking water and food, and people with serious health issues were not accessing medications or care.
In declarations from 23 people inside the jail in February, some said they were freezing without blankets, covering themselves with plastic bags to stay warm, going hungry, denied prescribed medications, suffering delusions and stuck in dirty living quarters. Photos from inside the IRC showed detainees lying on the ground, trash strewn about near them.
“The conditions are squalid, unsafe and inhumane,” said Corene Kendrick, ACLU National Prison Project deputy director, who has visited the jails. “It is incredibly difficult to see people suffering in such a way, and it’s just viewed as normal and acceptable … We’re glad the United Nations is coming in to see the human rights violations that are occurring every day.”
The UN will probably pay close attention to the racial disparities in the jails. LA county is 8% Black, while the jail population is 29% Black. Kendrick noted: “You can draw a straight line back to the racist police practices and LA county law enforcement’s disproportionate focus on communities of color.”
The LASD has also faced criticisms over a jail complex called Twin Towers, which houses people with mental illnesses and which the department says is the “largest mental health facility” in the US. Alex Sherman, a lawyer and county-appointed commissioner on an oversight group that inspects the jail, described observing a grotesque scene earlier this year with cells covered in human waste and infested with bugs: “The international attention these facilities receive could cause a lot of embarrassment to the county.”
This isn’t the first time LA advocates have sought intervention from watchdogs outside the US. In 2014, Dignity and Power Now, an LA non-profit group that has fought for alternatives to incarceration, submitted a report on violence against Black people with mental illnesses in the jails to a UN convention. “A decade later, the dynamics of racial discrimination have not changed, and that’s one of the most damning components,” said Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson, co-executive director of the group and chair of the county’s jail oversight commission.
“There is a longstanding culture that is very self-aware of its ability to evade accountability, to act with impunity and to dehumanize people in the jails, particularly Black people,” he added.
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An LASD spokesperson said in an email on Thursday that the visit would include stops at Twin Towers, Men’s Central and the women’s jail, but did not offer further details. In court last week, county officials admitted that the department had not complied with an injunction ordering it to clean the jails, and a judge has called for a hearing to decide whether the county is in contempt of court, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Salimah Hankins, director of the UN Antiracism Coalition, which is coordinating civil society group meetings with the UN experts, noted that there was a long history of Black activists, including Malcolm X, appealing to the UN and similar entities. “There’s this understanding that the LA jail system is serving the purpose of the subjugation particularly of Black bodies … It’s really important from an advocacy perspective for people to see that the world – and the UN represents that – has its eyes on what’s happening in jails and detention centers.”
Hankins said there was much less visibility to brutality behind bars compared with police violence on the street caught on cellphone cameras, and that she hoped the UN trip would give a voice to those incarcerated. “This is just one way we can tell folks inside, ‘We love you, we have not forgotten about you, we are pushing for you,’” she said.
The UN panel also has stops in Atlanta, Washington DC, Chicago, Minneapolis and New York City.