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For anyone naïve about the extent of inmate abuse in many of the nation’s jails and the challenges of conducting investigations, you need to read the recent criminal indictments of Los Angeles County sheriff deputies. In a document that reads like a bad Hollywood movie, the report details how sworn peace officers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department allegedly conspired to cover-up deeply troubling and systematic abuses of inmates and their visitors. The indictment chronicles deputies beating and intimidating witnesses, falsifying official information, lying to the courts, putting FBI agents under surveillance, and threatening to arrest federal investigators on false charges. Perhaps the most chilling revelation was that many of these deputies were high-ranking officials in the department’s internal investigation unit – ironically titled the Operation Safe Jails Program.

In a second indictment, federal investigators detailed allegations of abuse of visitors to the jail including indiscriminate beatings and false arrests. Supervisors encouraged deputies to use heavy-handed tactics on any visitor who disrespected or questioned the decision of any deputy. Supervisors praised the most abusive deputies while reprimanding those who acted responsibly and professionally. The abuses occurred with such frequency and impunity that deputies even assaulted and threatened the Austrian Consular General and her husband while they were making an official jail visit on behalf of an Austrian citizen. When the official asked to speak to a supervisor over the manner in which they were treated, she and her husband were taken into a nearby room, handcuffed, searched, and threatened with arrest, even though they had committed no crime and were immune to prosecution.

The official response from Sheriff Lee Baca to these shocking allegations is that the indictment was the result of a few bad deputies and is not a reflection of the entire department. 

It may be time for the Federal Courts to assume control, given the LA County Jail’s long sordid history of abuse and mismanagement and the inability of local policymakers to correct the problem. Yet, these indictments highlight the inherent challenges with all large criminal justice institutions.

The story brings to mind events at Corcoran State Prison back in the early-1990s, when whistleblowers revealed the systematic lethal shooting of several inmates by prison guards. Or the 2004 beating of youth in N.A. Chaderjian state youth correctional facility by custodial officers, which was only revealed because of leaked hidden camera footage.

While the atrocities chronicled in the LA indictment do not reflect upon all correctional officers, they do present the lack of oversight and accountability in custodial facilities. Large congregate institutions rely on an imbalance of power between the inhabitants and their custodians that breeds opportunities for abuse. As long as we rely on large-scale detention to address crime in California, abuses like those in Corcoran, N.A. Chaderjian, and LA county jails will continue to occur.

Daniel Macallair, Executive Director Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

To schedule an interview with Daniel Macallair on this topic, please contact Daniel at (415) 6215661 x. 111 or dmacallair@​cjcj.​org.