The LA County Jail Has Been Chaining Mentally Ill Men to Chairs for Days

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Add this to the list of scandals plaguing Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

As a criminal justice reporter here at Mother Jones, I get emails and letters every week detailing the horrific conditions at correctional facilities. But when I read one about what’s been happening at the Los Angeles County jail, the biggest jail in the country, my jaw actually dropped open.

The jail is overseen by Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who is up for reelection in November, and is at the center of several scandals, including his resistance to ending his department’s “deputy gangs,” or cliques of officers with matching tattoos and names like the Executioners and Grim Reapers.

In recent years, the jail has seen an influx of men arrested with mental health problems—and it doesn’t have enough special beds to accommodate them. As a result, some of these men are being chained to chairs in the jail’s intake center for days or even a week at a time, waiting for a bed to open up, according to a new legal filing by the ACLU. Sometimes jail staffers aren’t letting them up to use the toilet, so they are forced to defecate and urinate on themselves and on the floor, in trash cans, or in the juice boxes they are given to drink. They are allegedly denied showers afterward—as well as access to their medications. Many sit with their shirts pulled over their heads, trying to block the fluorescent lights after days without proper sleep.

County officials did not deny this is happening, after ACLU attorneys complained in court. “Lamentably, Plaintiffs are largely correct that conditions inside the Inmate Reception Center of the Los Angeles County Jail have deteriorated dramatically in past months,” the county’s attorneys wrote in a court filing on Monday, admitting that men were handcuffed to chairs for long stretches of time, and not refuting allegations about poor access to toilets and showers. Men “have been held in that space for well beyond 24 hours while waiting to be assigned to housing designed to accommodate their needs.”

How did things get so bad? The LA County jail system isn’t just the biggest in the country; it’s the biggest in the world, incarcerating upward of 14,600 people this month. Its male intake center processes thousands of individuals each week, the vast majority of whom have not been convicted of a crime but are awaiting trial or other legal proceedings. And in recent years, the number of them with mental health problems has grown considerably because Los Angeles County, like others counties around the country, has failed to invest enough money in mental health care and community alternatives to incarceration. Last year, about 40 percent of the jail’s total population had a diagnosed mental illness, compared with about 27 percent back in 2012.

A few thousand of these detainees are sick enough with suicidal thoughts, mood problems, or psychotic symptoms that they must be placed in special housing units with extra observation from staff; the number who are eligible for the highest-observation units alone has grown from 460 in 2012 to 1,577 today, according to county data. They are supposed to be placed in these units after no more than 24 hours in the jail’s intake center, which does not have beds or other basic accommodations. But these special housing units are “in short supply,” the county’s attorneys wrote in the court filing, which means that people recently have been forced to wait much, much longer.

On a single day in August, a whopping 252 people had been stuck in the men’s intake center for longer than 24 hours; many had been there for several days, or even a week. Wait times increased over the summer, after the Los Angeles Superior Court ended a statewide, pandemic-era order about bail schedules that had decreased the number of people that could be jailed before they went to trial. While most of the men in the intake center are allowed to move around as they wait, some with serious mental health symptoms are handcuffed to chairs. On that same day in August, 22 people had been chained for more than three days—significantly longer than the limit of just two or four hours recommended in most jail policies nationwide, according to the ACLU filing.

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