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Federal Court Restrains Los Angeles County Jail Overcrowding

by John E. Dannenberg

On October 27, 2006, the U.S. District Court (C.D. Cal.) issued an ?Order to Show Cause (?OSC?) re Issuance of Preliminary Injunction or Temporary Restraining Order,? plus imposed initial restraints, regarding the ongoing unconstitutional overcrowding at the Los Angeles County Main Jail (MCJ). These conditions were traced to the unending influx of new pre-trial detainees into the Inmate Reception Center (IRC). Because the court?s prior order to reduce overcrowding in specific areas in the MCJ had simply pushed the 500 excess prisoners back into the IRC, the court came to the conclusion that it now had to attack the unconstitutional conditions at the IRC.

On its MCJ tour on May 10, 2006, the court observed ?clear evidence of overcrowding.? It rose to the level of unconstitutionality in the following areas: cells designed for two prisoners contained four (leaving them no place to stand up in the cell, and where they were kept 24/7, less 3 hours per week exercise time); cells designed for four prisoners contained six. The court found conditions ?inconsistent with basic human values.?

On its second tour on September 14, 2006, the court found these MCJ conditions remedied, but at the expense of worsening conditions in the IRC. There, the 30 holding cells limited to 20 prisoners (3? x 3? space per prisoner) contained from 35 to 50 prisoners. Worse yet, they had no place to sleep and had but one filthy toilet to share. Kept there often for over ten hours, with no bunks or mattresses, and forced to eat in the same space, these new detainees (clothed only in the presumption of innocence) were forced to endure the lowest level of treatment in the county jail system.

While $258 million had been appropriated recently for improvements to the MCJ, none of this would expand jail capacity. Thus, the court found ?a fairly bleak prognosis? for reduction of the constitutional violations due to overcrowding. Rather than await further lawsuits, the court felt that the only reasonable remedy was to tighten the noose on Sheriff Leroy Baca. It issued an ?Order to Show Cause re Issuance of Preliminary Injunction or Temporary Restraining Order? as to why Baca should not be restrained from (1) holding a prisoner in IRC for more than 24 hours, (2) holding more than 20 prisoners in one holding cell, (3) placing any prisoner in a holding cell which is not clean and sanitary, (4) holding a prisoner in IRC without giving him full access to medical care, (5) housing six prisoners in four-man MCJ cells, and (6) housing four prisoners in two-man MCJ cells.

While Sheriff Baca?s opposition (if any) to the OSC was due November 20, 2006, the court ordered immediate compliance with these restraints pending a hearing on the OSC. This latest order was hardly an overreaction; the instant case on the L.A. County Jail?s overcrowding has been festering since 1975. See: Rutherford v. Baca, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. CV 75-04111 DDP.

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Related legal case

Rutherford v. Baca