Despite government oversight, LA County jails continue to struggle

Many inmates with serious mental illnesses in Los Angeles County jails continue to suffer in isolation and with little treatment, more than six years after the sheriff’s department reached a settlement with the federal government.

The county is still not complying with the settlement’s key requirements — ensuring inmates with serious mental illness receive regular treatment, time out of cells and safe housing, according to a court-appointed monitor.

At the Men’s Central Jail, many cells were overflowing with trash and dirt was strewn along the walls, with a stack of razors left in a hallway, monitor Nicholas E. Mitchell said in a report.

Last June, about 40% of the inmates in the country’s largest county jail system were diagnosed with a mental illness — 5,620 in all.

On Friday, a federal judge outlined benchmarks the county must meet before May 15.

Under the plan, the county must achieve “substantial compliance” by 2024 — nine years after the settlement was finalized in August 2015.

County attorneys have expressed concerns about meeting that goal.

U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson said at a hearing Friday he was concerned about the “revolving door” for inmates with mental illness who don’t receive release plans, including how they will receive medication and therapy after they are released.

Last year, the number of inmates who died by suicide in LA County jails was the highest since the settlement, Assistant US Attorney Matthew Nickell said at the hearing.

A spike in suicides in county jails was part of what prompted federal officials to seek the settlement.

Deputy Alejandra Parra, a public information officer with the LA County Sheriff’s Department, said the agency is unable to comment on ongoing litigation. So did Coral Itzcalli, a spokeswoman for the county health department, which provides psychiatric care in the prisons.

Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel at the ACLU of Southern California, said the county’s failure to provide constitutionally required mental health care in prisons goes back decades.

He cited a 1997 federal report that found similar problems that inmates still face today.

“We’re really talking about 25 years of violations of the rights of some of the most vulnerable people in our community,” Eliasberg said. “It’s honestly a shame.”

Miriam Krinsky led a citizens’ commission that released a landmark report on prison violence in 2012, ahead of the federal settlement.

Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who now heads the nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution, said mental health care needs to start long before people end up behind bars.

“There needs to be a louder outcry to underscore that removing people from their communities, on the assumption that this will make us safer, if they do not pose a danger to the community, they are committing lower-level crimes based on mental health Health or substance use disorders are not making our community healthier or safer,” she said.

The federal settlement was reached under then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell, less than a year after he was elected amid scandal and prison inmate abuse.

Alex Villanueva removed McDonnell as sheriff in 2018 and has been in charge of the prisons ever since.

Mitchell, the federal monitor that regularly inspects county jails as part of the settlement, wrote in a scathing report in September that officials initially made significant progress. Now, he wrote, that progress has “stalled.”

The county has pointed out the significant challenges posed by COVID-19, but Mitchell argued that’s no excuse.

The state settlement required intensive psychiatric treatment for prison inmates, but the county has not provided the money to meet those goals, Mitchell said in his report.

In recent years, LA County officials have made efforts to direct minors with mental health problems into treatment and residential programs rather than jail.

However, LA County still needs nearly 1,500 inpatient mental health beds and 4,000 permanent supportive housing units, according to the Federal Monitor report.

In prisons, conditions for inmates with the most severe mental illnesses have deteriorated.

In high observation units, inmates are locked in cells alone and only let out for very limited periods of time, Mitchell’s report said.

When Mitchell’s team visited, some inmates were asleep and others were pacing their cells.

Few were able to acknowledge, let alone answer, the questions posed by team members, the report said.

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