Inmate hung a noose. Jailers too busy watching ‘explicit video’ to intervene, inspectors say

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

When a pair of oversight inspectors walked up to one of the deputies’ stations inside Men’s Central Jail last month, they were already exasperated. During their visit to the high-security unit, the inspectors later wrote in their report, they’d been concerned to see a noose in one of the cells.

They were even more concerned when they realized a jailer had walked by for a safety check and ignored it.

The first time an inspector approached the deputies to tell them about it, he said, the eight jailers sitting in front of a television brushed him off. When he returned half an hour later with another inspector, he realized why: The deputies were busy watching a “sexually explicit” video, according to an oversight report published this month.

“The degree of callousness they were exhibiting was just horrific,” said Eric Miller, one of the two Sybil Brand Commission inspectors who wrote the report. “What’s the purpose of the security check if you’re not actually taking any action?”

It was only after inspectors asked several deputies to intervene that one jailer finally tore down the noose before the inmate harmed himself, the report said.

To Haley Broder, the inspector who accompanied Miller that day, the failure to act seemed to be representative of larger problems she saw inside the decades-old facility.

“There was just continuous neglect and bad conditions,” Broder told The Times this week. “People were saying they were hungry. We saw people with giant open wounds. The trash was just everywhere — there’s so much trash. It smells. There are fires. And it seems in general there is just a genuine lack of interest in changing that situation.”

In an emailed statement, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said it has addressed several of the issues identified in the June report. Officials did not say whether the deputies caught watching the video have been reassigned but told The Times there is now an investigation underway.

“The department investigates all allegations of misconduct and expects its personnel to perform its responsibilities in a professional manner in accordance with department policy,” the statement said. “When violations of policy and procedures are discovered, personnel are held accountable.”

The latest problems in the jail came to light after Miller and Broder visited for a surprise inspection in mid-May. When they entered the first-floor high-security unit, the inspectors stopped to talk to a man who’d been let out of his cell to shower. As they talked, Miller said, they watched a deputy walk down the row to look inside each cell for a safety check. A few minutes later, Broder said, she peeked into the open cell of the man who’d come out to shower.

That’s when she spotted the noose.

“Though unlikely to support the incarcerated person’s weight, the noose was obvious to anyone looking into the cell,” she and Miller wrote in their report.

While Miller went to find a deputy, Broder — a trained social worker — stayed behind to talk to the apparently suicidal man in the shower, who had by then started banging his head against the wall.

At first, Miller said, he went to the deputies’ station, where he found eight jailers seated in front of a television.

“The deputies said they would check on the cell later,” the inspection report said, “but remained seated watching the video on the television.”

Eventually, Miller said, he tracked down the first deputy he’d spotted doing rounds, and convinced him to remove the noose.

After the commissioners finished inspecting the rest of the unit, they returned to discover the eight deputies were still sitting at their station watching a “sexually explicit video” on their television. When Miller walked in, he said, they didn’t move to turn it off.

“To me it looked like the beginning of an OnlyFans video or something,” Miller said. “It was women in underwear, and it certainly didn’t look like they were going to put more clothes on. It looked like they were going to take them off.”

Officials did not respond to a question from The Times about what exactly the deputies were watching.

It was only when Broder walked in a few seconds after Miller that the deputies “hurriedly removed the video from the screen,” the report said.

The report did not name the deputies involved.

The jails have long struggled to provide constitutionally adequate care and living conditions. The county is currently subject to four court-enforced settlement agreements stemming from federal lawsuits over poor treatment of inmates and bad living conditions.

The newest of those settlements dates back to 2015 when — after a rise in jail suicides — the U.S. Department of Justice took legal action against the county for failing to provide adequate treatment for severely mentally ill inmates. The oldest of the cases is focused on living conditions and dates back to the 1970s, but it still remains open because the Sheriff’s Department has never fully complied with the terms of the settlement.

“Men’s Central Jail is a rolling settlement agreement violation,” Miller said. “And no one is willing to take responsibility.”

Melissa Camacho concurred. She’s an American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California senior staff attorney representing inmates in two of the ongoing federal lawsuits.

“Issues with safety checks and not notifying anyone that they saw a noose during a safety check have to be clear violations of the consent decree in the DOJ case,” she said. “That case is focused on reducing the numbers of deaths by suicide, so to walk by a noose is beyond the pale.”

On that same floor of the jail, inspectors spotted several other problems. Some cells had broken toilets or leaking pipes, and the housing areas were humid from the constant drip of leaking showers, the report said. Inmates complained of rats and cockroaches in their cells and food, and inspectors said they saw mildew on ceilings, showers and in cells.

“There was also a man whose cell was covered in mold and water and he was using his clothes to sop up the water,” Broder said. “In that unit they don’t have books, they don’t have pens. They have absolutely nothing, and it’s completely dark.”

On the fourth floor of the jail, inspectors wrote that some cells had no cold water, so the inmates had rigged up a system to pass water from cell to cell using strings and plastic bottles. There was a “strong smell of fire burning” and “trash everywhere.”

In multiple cells on that floor as well as on the first floor, the mattresses had chunks missing, an issue Camacho found particularly vexing. Over the last 50 years, the jails have repeatedly landed in legal trouble for failing to provide mattresses to all inmates, forcing some to sleep on urine-soaked floors or chained to benches.

“Having mattresses with chunks missing violates an order that has been in place since the 1970s,” Camacho said. “It’s assumed when the Sheriff’s Department is ordered to give everybody a mattress it will be a complete mattress and not a partial mattress.”

On the fifth floor, inspectors said, inmates were triple-bunked in a hot cell block where the air conditioners were filled with lint. There were bugs coming out of the sinks, the report said, along with “small black worms.”

One person reported that there was “a sick inmate in the bunk above them whose defecation was falling into their bunk.” The inmate told inspectors the deputies had ignored their requests to help the sick person.

In several housing areas throughout the jail, inspectors said, inmates complained there wasn’t enough food, and the meals they did get were often cold or inedible. In one dorm, a man showed commissioners a carton of fully curdled milk he said he’d received that day. When inspectors talked to medical staff about it, one employee concurred that there “appeared to be insufficient food for the incarcerated people,” according to the report.

In its statement, the Sheriff’s Department did not address allegations about a lack of food but said that it had already resolved the cold water problem and that officials worked to have such issues “corrected as expeditiously as possible.”

The department said that none of the inspectors reported a sick inmate during their visit, and that jail officials would contact the commission for further details. The department also said that its own inspection this week did not reveal any black worms, and that the jail maintains a contract with an exterminator.

“The Sheriff’s Department often says they don’t have enough staff,” Camacho said. “What the Sybil Brand Commission tour shows is that it isn’t that there isn’t enough staff — it’s that they don’t do their job. And in this case, it’s that they were watching porn instead of doing their job.”

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.