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Reform of L..A. County Jails is Needed

by April Ingram Tuesday, Jun. 22, 2004 at 10:01 AM

Jail task force urges jail reform and preparation for former inmates to be released into society.

A panel of activists and attorneys discussed strategies for reform of Los Angeles County’s Jail system at the Southern California Chapter of the ACLU on June 18th. This jail task force shed light on a variety of issues such as housing, health care, mental health, inmates with special needs, jail overcrowding and understaffing, attitudes of staff and discharge of prisoners.

About 19,000 inmates are housed in the jails of Los Angeles County. About 500 are classified as K-11, which means they are gay, or transgender, and are segregated in a separate unit. The average inmate’s stay is 42 days.

One issue that came up most frequently was health care. Often inmates with medical conditions may wait days or weeks before seeing a doctor. When inmates are released into society, often they are not given a supply of medication or a prescription. This lapse of treatment could be particularly dangerous for those who have conditions such as diabetes or HIV/AIDS.

Trangenders often do not receive prescribed hormone treatment. According to a representative from Bienestar, there are numerous transgenders who have taken hormones without a prescription prior to their incarceration. These individuals often are overlooked by medical staff, since they do not have a formal medical history that indicates a need for hormones. The Bienestar representative also said that transgender inmates have been ridiculed by deputies and said that the needs of transgenders are frequently ignored.

STD prevention has been overlooked in the jails. Since sex in jail is technically illegal, condoms are not provided. However, in reality, many inmates engage in sexual relations in jail and new STDs are transmitted.

Some mentally ill inmates continue to be housed in the general population ward, because they do not fit the specific criteria necessary for psychiatric care. The inmates in the general population often respond by skipping out on their “yard time” for exercise, because they do not feel safe around mentally unstable inmates. However, without exercise and recreation as an emotional outlet, feelings of anger and hostility increase, which may entually lead to a volatile situation.

One task force member described the language of correctional officers and deputies as extremely abusive. The officers frequently shout obscenities and taunt the inmates. This leads to a situation of increased hostility toward the staff, and should there be a lapse in security, violence. Task force members responded by suggesting better training methods for jail staff and suggested inviting members of the sheriffs’ department in future meetings to build better relationships between inmates and officers.

Access to legal resources is often a problem for inmates, as well. Law books with pages ripped out have not been replaced. Photocopy machines are often not maintained. This leaves many inmates without the tools to help themselves. The cost of a phone call is often prohibitive to inmates who have limited funds. One task force member said pay phone rates can run as high as for only a few minutes.

Inmates who do not have relatives or friends who can house them upon their release often end up homeless, or if they are fortunate enough, in a shelter. Task force members urge that there should be a smoother transition in housing inmates so that after they are released, they have adequate shelter and a way to reconnect to society.

One way to help a former inmate connect with society is by providing employment. Former inmates are often overlooked by employers who use background checks as a way to eliminate potential employees. However, one organization, Homeboy Industries, helps find employment for those released from jails and prisons. Wearing T-shirts with their motto: “nothing stops a bullet like a job,” the representatives of Homeboys Industries stress that everyone deserves a second chance, regardless of their criminal background. Their services include tattoo removal, job training, and counseling.

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