The National Prison Project Journal is a showcase for the work of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation (NPP). The NPP is the only office that works nationwide to protect the rights of prisoners. The Journal highlights the diverse work and initiatives we are engaged in across the country to ensure that the treatment of prisoners complies with the Constitution, domestic law, and international human rights principles.

 

VOLUME 23-1

Table of Contents

Culture of Violence by Simon Kwong

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Fall 2011 »

 

Culture of Violence

by Simon Kwong

July 2011: Deputy Chavez appears at Macario Garcia's cell and announces that the prisoner has an appointment with an eye doctor. With Deputy Weiner manning the gated control booth, Chavez proceeds to handcuff the prisoner from behind and escorts him out of his cell. "Oh, it's you, you piece of shit, punk," Weiner says, referring to an incident two weeks prior in which he had strip-searched Garcia. He continues, "Shut the fuck up, punk. You ain't nothing but a coward bitch. You had your chance to fight me but you didn't" You're not going to go to your doctor's appointment" Get against the wall."[1]

Garcia is a 42 year old prisoner at Men's Central Jail (MCJ), part of the Los Angeles County Jail system. At a very slight 6'2" and 165 pounds, one could hardly say he poses a threat to Deputies Chavez and Weiner, both of whom weigh more than 220 pounds. Having been blinded in one eye from a previous beating by deputies, few would think he would stand a chance in an altercation with prison guards.

*****

With an average daily population of more than 19,000 prisoners [2], the Los Angeles County Jail constitutes the largest jail system in the world, housing the equivalent of an NBA stadium at full capacity. Many of these detainees are pre-trial detainees, charged (but not convicted) with a wide array of nonviolent, minor offenses ranging from public intoxication to subway fare evasion. Indeed, 72% of defendants in non-felony cases remained imprisoned at the time of their disposition.[3] As a result, the vast majority of prisoners in L.A. County Jails, presumed innocent, are subject to the brutal culture of violence that infests the system. Although charged with maintaining order, deputies violate their duty in perverse fashion by forming violent gang-like cliques [4] within MCJ, an antiquated, overcrowded, windowless dungeon of the prison complex that has been deemed "not consistent with basic human values."[5] Prison staff regularly incite prisoner-on-prisoner violence and are responsible for other sadistic incidents of extreme physical abuse, targeted especially at the mentally ill.[6] Lawlessness has grown to the extent where such occurrences take place undeterred even by the presence of outside witnesses. [7]

Such blatant disregard for basic standards of humanity inevitably starts at the top. As Sheriff of Los Angeles County, Leroy Baca is responsible for the management of all L.A. County Jails, as well as the safekeeping of all prisoners in his custody. Despite receiving multiple reports of this systemic problem, Sheriff Baca neglects to take any action to address these issues by both denial and feigning ignorance. On October 16, 2011, he told the LA Times, "I wasn't ignoring the jails. I just didn't know. People can say ‘What the hell kind of leader is that?' The truth is I should've known. So now I do know." [8] However, retired custody commander Robert Olmsted describes notifying Baca of the extreme violence as early as December of 2010. The commander says, "I told him, ‘this incident didn't need to happen. None of the incidents in the jail needed to happen. There is a serious cultural problem in the department and it's not being addressed.'" [9]

*****

After Macario Garcia faces the wall opposite the deputy's control booth, complying with the guard's orders, Chavez and Weiner proceed to viciously attack him, punching the prisoner several times until he falls to the ground. However, that's not enough for these two. They continue to assault the fallen prisoner, savagely laying punches and kicks upon the victim while beating him with their flashlights and repeatedly slamming his head against the ground. For five, long minutes, this happens. Garcia hears Deputy Weiner call out the radio code "415," meaning an officer is involved in a fight. He blacks out.

Upon regaining consciousness, Garcia hears the two deputies yelling. "Stop resisting! Stop pulling away!" While still handcuffed and entirely compliant, the prisoner sees several other deputies running towards him. Pepper spray soon covers the victim's face, while Chavez and Weiner continue to strike him. When the deputies try to pull Garcia to his feet by his arms, which are still handcuffed behind him, he feels a sharp pain in his collarbone and hears a loud crack. Even after the victim screams in pain, the deputies continue pulling on his arms, dragging him towards the elevator. Blood covers the prisoner's face. Unable to walk, Garcia is dragged to the medical clinic where the nurses recommend that he be taken to the Los Angeles Medical Center because of the serious nature of his injuries.

*****

On January 18, 2012, the ACLU filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Sheriff Leroy Baca and his top officials for condoning a systemic pattern of violence against prisoners by gangs of deputies. This action constitutes the latest development in the ACLU's efforts to eradicate the unconstitutional conditions in the L.A. County Jails that may have existed since the early 1970's [10]. "Sheriff Lee Baca, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, and Chief Dennis Burns are responsible for ensuring that their subordinates do not engage in a pattern of unspeakable acts of violence against inmates," said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California. "But in the face of a longstanding pattern of deputy abuse they have deliberately and knowingly failed to put in place the basic pieces of an accountability system – sound policies on the use of force, adequate training, careful investigation of force incidents and a rigorous system of discipline. This suit is directed at them because they have allowed deputies to go unpunished, covered up their behavior and for years made no effort to reform this broken system." [11] With the filing of this lawsuit, the ACLU hopes to not only grant injunctive relief to end the physical abuse of prisoners, but also to require prison officials to establish adequate policy and training on the use of force to help prevent abuses from occurring in the future. The lawsuit also calls for a third-party investigation of all incidents of excessive force and prisoner-on-prisoner violence, punishment for prison staff found to be involved in the inappropriate use of force, and the supervision of correctional staff conduct.

Because of the efforts of the ACLU and the resulting media scrutiny, violence at Men's Central Jail has already decreased. Local editorials denouncing the conditions of Sheriff Baca's facilities, as well as an investigative county commission on this matter, constitute promising signs that the public is aware of these gross injustices and that they will not be tolerated. However, this recent change remains only ephemeral as no real policy reform has yet taken place. In the coming weeks, the pretrial discovery process will yield records of prisoner complaints, how prison staff responded to them, and the Sheriff's handling of these cases among many other findings. Hopefully, the ACLU will succeed in acquiring a court-ordered injunction against Baca to hold his staff accountable for incidents of prisoner abuse with the eventual outcome of uprooting the long-standing culture of violence that has characterized the L.A. County Jail system for decades. The closure of the barbaric Men's Central Jail and the transfer of pre-trial detainees for minor, non-violent crimes to community supervision alternatives is the ultimate goal, which would both increase public safety and save a quarter-billion dollars of public funds annually. However, until meaningful reform takes place, episodes of cruelty and injustice will continue to cast a shadow over the L.A. County criminal justice system.

*****

Macario Garcia waits to be transferred to the hospital and hears the deputies laughing at him. "You didn't get hit. You fell," one of them says. On video, a sergeant and two deputies interview the prisoner about the altercation, during which he reports that Chavez and Weiner had assaulted him.

At the hospital, the prisoner receives stitches above both his eyebrows. Bruises pepper the victim's face and legs, and the medical staff tells him he has a broken collarbone. Dizzy spells and the occasional ringing in the ear now plague him, as well as an inability to raise his right arm more than six inches. Garcia now faces new criminal charges for, among other things, assaulting a deputy.

 

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