SOMBER VISIT TO MEN’S CENTRAL JAIL
Last week I toured both the Men’s Central jail and the Twin Towers with an administrative advisor to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. What I found was a mixed bag of hope, despair and desperation.
We first went to the Twin Towers and sat in on three Education Based Incarceration classes. One involved visually impaired inmates who make their own glasses while incarcerated. I heard stories of men who were given sight but were still in need of more services. Overall there was a sense of optimism among them. I spoke about how AB 109 was causing prison overcrowding to the point that the LA County Board of Supervisors (BOS) tried to transfer inmates to Taft private prison in Bakersfield. An act of God made Supervisor Gloria Molina change her vote on the motion, which she originally sponsored, from yes to no. On the way out an inmate pulled me to the side and asked if I was sure that the transfer had been stopped. He had a look of concern as he told me that he had received a written notification that he was one of those to be sent to Taft. I told him that even though that plan is on hold, I am worried about jail expansion plans that the BOS are considering. I heard that parts of Mens Central are a medieval dungeon that should be shut down.
Next we went to a class that was being taught by an ex-felon that was popular with the inmates. It was clear to me that many of these men want to better themselves and were happy that we took the time to come to speak with them. We then went to another class that quickly filled with inmates once word got out that visitors were present. My tour guide is a much respected Sheriff’s Department employee, which helped me to engage in open and frank dialogue with the inmates, guards and instructors. He asked how many were there on drug charges. More than half raised their hands. I sparked interest when I spoke about Michelle Alexander and the New Jim Crow, how the “war on drugs” caused mass incarceration. A few inmates wrote down her name.
The general population section was depressing and lives up to being a dungeon. Rows of cells with four men locked in each small, double bunked cage, young Black and Brown males. I asked the guard how many hours a day are they able to leave their cell. An inmate within ear shot of the conversation replied “none”. The guard replied that they were able to leave their cells for “a few hours a week”. Here are the other things that the inmates complained about: denial of toilet paper, no phone access, hard bologna, being held beyond release date, no one to appeal to for help.
If those arrested did not have mental problems before they arrived, it is a good chance they will have some after a few weeks under these inhumane conditions.
The community, elected officials and clergy have to get involved; this is too much for Sheriff Baca to handle alone. It is clear that Men’s Central is not sustainable, but spending $1 billion to build a new jail is not feasible. Pre-trial release needs to be implemented. Get rid of the bail bonds system. Place non violent drug offenders into community based rehabilitation programs. I have heard that there are thousands of empty beds in the LA County Jail system, 2,500 of which are said to be at Pitchess Detention Center. I am looking into this.
Nyabingi Kuti – Executive Director, South LA Reintegration Council firstname.lastname@example.org