Old, decrepit and toxic. This is how the Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) is described in a new report released today by the ACLU of Southern California. The report is based on the observations of ACLU jail monitors, numerous interviews with prisoners, and thousands of prisoner complaints gathered between 2008 and 2009.
The report paints a disturbing picture of MCJ. The 50-year-old jail houses approximately 5,000 men, 70 to 80 percent of whom are not convicted of anything, but are merely awaiting trial. Inmates are surrounded by filthy conditions—mold-blackened showers, clogged and overflowing toilets, rats and cockroaches infesting the cells, and rotting food and trash in the hallways. One prisoner reported blood and feces on the walls of the cell he was placed in that wasn’t cleaned prior to his arrival. In some instances, prisoners aren’t allowed to shower for weeks.
And that’s just the visible condition of MCJ. The report details disturbing accounts of the lack of treatment for mentally disabled prisoners. From the report:
[A] prisoner reported having to wait three months after intake before he saw a psychiatrist, even though he had a 20-year history of bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia that could be confirmed by state agencies. He described his experience waiting for psychiatric treatment: “When I don’t take my medication I become homicidal and I can’t sleep and I start shaking. I’m trying to control my thoughts and my anger because I don’t want to hurt anybody while I’m here.”
Another prisoner reported:
The deputies ignore my mental health conditions and it seems to me that they will not give me my medication until I seriously hurt myself. When I was in psych review they made me live in a cell with my own excrements. The mental health personnel treat me like they think I am joking about having mental health issues.
In addition, the MCJ’s apparent culture of violence and fear includes prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and use of excessive force by deputies. When one prisoner complained about the lack of access to showers, prison guards broke both his ankles by striking them with flashlights.
In a statement today, Peter Eliasberg, Managing Attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, called MSJ “a modern-day medieval dungeon, a dank, windowless place where prisoners live in fear of retaliation and abuse apparently goes unchecked.” Margaret Winter of the ACLU’s National Prison Project said: “The conditions at Men’s Central Jail are simply among the most barbaric of any jail or prison in the nation.”
It’s our hope that this report will compel state lawmakers to lower the jail population by using proven diversion programs such as electronic monitoring and drug and mental health treatment.