Later today, Los Angeles County supervisors will take up the question of how best to oversee the jails. The move comes after the latest scandal over deputies allegedly brutalizing inmates at Men's Central Jail. Sheriff Lee Baca is making his case to the public through the press, offering reporters a rare glimpse behind the walls of the facility.
A note to listeners: this story contains graphic descriptions. Reporter: Krissy Clark
As a scandal over deputies brutalizing inmates in Los Angeles' jails widens, county supervisors are expected Tuesday to create an independent oversight commission. The FBI and the US Attorney's office are already investigating, and there are calls for Sheriff Lee Baca to step down.
Most of the complaints have come from the Men's Central Jail. The California Report's L.A. Bureau Chief Krissy Clark got a rare glimpse inside, and brings us this report.
Editor's note: the story contains graphic descriptions.
Krissy Clark: Past the sounds of pent up inmate rage bouncing off peeling, graffiti-scarred walls, past a burly deputy guarding a line of equally burly inmates; you'll find the jail chapel.
On a recent morning, about 200 men in county-issued blues sat in the chapel's wooden pews, waiting to talk to the man ultimately in control of their lives -- at least while they're locked up here -- Sheriff Lee Baca. He walks to the front of the room and calls them to attention.
Sheriff Lee Baca: Gentleman...We're ready to go.
Clark: After so much bad news around reports of abusive deputies in the jails, the sheriff is here to show inmates -- and the rest of the world, which is why reporters were invited -- that he's doing something.
When new abuse allegations started coming out last month, he tried to defend his jails' record; but in the last two weeks he's announced a set of plans meant to fix things. He's appointed a staff task force to re-open investigations on 70 abuse complaints. He's assigned new commanders to manage the jails. And he's started a series of town hall meetings like this one, where he talks directly with inmates.
LA County Sheriff Lee Baca addresses inmates at the chapel inside Men's Central Jail.
Sheriff Baca: Let me tell you something about what's going on here. I'm the sheriff and I'm responsible for you.
Clark: The men in this chapel are just a fraction of the 15,000 inmates that fill L.A.'s jails on charges ranging from shoplifting to murder. Though, most of them haven't actually been convicted of anything yet, and some never will. They're waiting for trial, but can't afford bail.
After the sheriff introduces himself, he gives these men something between an excuse and an apology about the jail system he runs.
Sheriff Baca: Like anything, even though I have the overall responsibility for the whole operation, the truth is, I don't know everything, what's going on. That's part of the reality of why we're here. That we've got to do a better job for you.
Clark: Then, he opens the floor for questions.
Sheriff Baca: Gentleman, anybody, please. Right here. Yes, please.
Inmate 1: I'd like to address a couple of things? First of all, the vending machines. We pay $10.75 for a $10 vending card.
Clark: At first, that's how the meeting goes. Mundane complaints: instant soups cost too much; the rec room is never open.
For the first hour and a half of the meeting, you almost forget that this is the jail at the center of a widening scandal over alleged deputy brutality -- with claims of gang-like cliques that allegedly beat one inmate so violently they broke his jaw, and carved racist initials into the skull of another.
You almost forget that until, near the end of the meeting, a young man near the back stands up.
Inmate 2: I want to know what's up with the police whipping our ass and all that for no reason.
Sheriff Baca: Ok, he's talking about police doing whippings.
Clark: And then, the floodgates open. Another inmate describes a guard slamming him against the wall for no reason, when he was waiting in line for medication. Another man tells the sheriff inmates get strip-searched for looking the wrong way.
Inmate 3: We looking at the floor and they're like what you looking at, we ain't even looked at them or nothing.
They want to put you on the wall, strip you out, make you drop your pants, squat cough, spread 'em out and all that extra stuff. And then you ain't complying with 'em, now here come they boys, the rest of the gang, and you're getting packed out.
Baca: I hear you. He said it well -- this is a major issue. And my commanders they hear you too, and even the deputies hear you.
Clark: That's just what some inmates are afraid of.
Inmate 4: I know that every person who stands up here, we're kind of like, ok, now there's a spotlight on us. So when we go back in these hallways when you guys leave, there's going to be a little tension.
Clark: After the meeting, I'm not allowed to talk to any of the inmates. But I do get to speak with sheriff Baca, and ask him why it took a national scandal to start addressing these complaints.
Sheriff Baca: I don't have any reluctance to place the blame on myself.
Clark: Baca framed the problem as one of communication in a giant bureaucracy.
Sheriff Baca: I thought it was being addressed all along -- that all the complaints were being investigated and that we've arrived at appropriate answers to those investigations.
Clark: Peter Eliasberg is with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Peter Eliasberg: It's a very damning statement about the management system that he has in place.
Clark: The group has been monitoring L.A. jails, as part of the settlement in a federal lawsuit.
Eliasberg: The sheriff's department is a very large organization, and he's been in charge of it for many, many years. And if his management structure was keeping this kind of information from him, it's speaks volumes to his ability to set up a management structure that works.
Clark: The irony of the criticism over sheriff Baca's management is that he has a reputation for being progressive and humane in his law enforcement approach. Connie Rice is a civil rights attorney and close friend of the sheriff. She says there's a disconnect between his vision, and how the department is operating.
Connie Rice: He's an inspirational leader, and he does it through positive energy and that kind of thing. I think that he's seeing that is not enough. That you actually have to change the incentives; that you have to rewrite the job descriptions, you have to change the promotional criteria, and what people do on their shifts. Just very concrete change.
Clark: But while Baca refines his strategy, the county has its own plans to bring in more oversight. At a meeting today, supervisors are expected to create an independent jail commission.