About 100 had only blankets for covering, a practice the Sheriff’s Department defends. Beds were not secured, a violation of guidelines.
More than 100 inmates at a Los Angeles County jail were ordered to strip naked, had their mattresses taken away and were left with only blankets to cover themselves for a day as Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department officials tried to quell racially charged violence that has plagued the jail system for nearly two weeks.
The tactics — defended Friday by jail officials as necessary to stop the fighting — were immediately criticized as dehumanizing and highly inappropriate by civil rights activists and the Sheriff’s Department’s independent overseer.
"I have no problem taking privileges away…. It comes to a different level of basic human rights if you take away clothing and dignity," said Michael Gennaco, chief of Sheriff Lee Baca’s office of independent review. "I don’t know if it is consistent with the sheriff’s core values."
Baca said Friday that he was informed of the tactics after the order was given and supported the move, as long as the measures were short-lived. He said keeping inmates naked was at the "outer edge of our core values" but was done to save lives.
Scrutiny of the inmates’ treatment comes as Gennaco is also examining why the bunk beds in dorms at Pitchess Detention Center where the rioting began Feb. 4 were not permanently fastened to a floor or wall. State guidelines in effect since 1986 call for beds in areas holding maximum-security-risk inmates to be immovable, in part so inmates cannot use them as weapons.
Investigators believe attackers used a steel bunk bed to beat inmate Wayne Tiznor, 45, to death during rioting Feb. 4 at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic. About 2,000 inmates threw bunk beds off balconies and beat and kicked one another in a disturbance that took deputies four hours to end.
In light of the slaying, sheriff’s officials said Friday they may begin fastening more than 1,600 double and triple bunk beds to the floor or walls in dorms holding maximum-security inmates.
Recent riots and fights in the jails have left two men dead and more than 100 injured, including four injuries Friday after 40 inmates scuffled at the Pitchess’ North facility, a disturbance broken up by deputies using tear gas.
Sammy L. Jones, chief of the custody division, said Friday that it was his decision to force inmates at that jail to spend much of Feb. 9 naked and without their mattresses. The punishment was an attempt to calm inmates who had repeatedly attacked each other, even after privileges such as access to mail, television and phones were taken away, Jones said.
He said the measures were taken in three dorms, each housing between 45 and 60 inmates. The strategy worked, he said. There was no new violence in those dorms and after one day the inmates were given clothing, Jones said.
While naked, inmates had no place to hide weapons such as homemade knives and could not use clothing to pull another inmate down, he said.
"I’m dealing with lives," Jones said. "I’m sure that if an inmate goes in there and comes out with his life and comes home healthy, his family is happy."
Jones, who said he has spent the last two weeks talking to inmates and directing efforts to suppress fighting, said: "I take it personally if I lose somebody in the jail system. It hurts."
Baca said that although he was uncomfortable with keeping inmates naked, he would allow it again if other tactics failed to stop fights.
"I know [his] motives were to save lives," Baca said of Jones. "The victims of these fights should have had their dignity protected."
But Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the revelations about safety concerns in the dorms, as well as the stripping of inmates as punishment, pointed to a "huge systemic problem" in a jail system that holds about 19,000 inmates.
"They don’t have the staffing and the facilities to operate a detention and incarceration system according to professional standards," Rosenbaum said. "These are procedures they’re making up as they go along because the staffing and facilities and other professional measures are not in place. It’s going to be a recurring nightmare for the county and for the inmates until the systemic problems are fixed."
Rosenbaum said holding of inmates in the nude and without mattresses was reminiscent of the infamous images out the scandal over treatment of Iraqi prisoners.
"We would be horrified if these methods had taken place at Abu Ghraib," he said. "However effective or ineffective, humiliation and degradation is not a proper procedure for discipline."
The department has long relied on large barracks-style dormitories to house high-risk offenders because the older facilities require less staff than Twin Towers, a state-of-the-art jail that was built in the 1990s and has never been used to house the maximum-security inmates it was designed for. The practice is out of step with national guidelines, which warn that dorms are suitable only for low-level offenders and are likely to breed racial violence if filled with more violent people.
Baca said last week he would finally open part of Twin Towers to maximum-security inmates by the end of March.
Aside from the larger issue of using dorms for violent offenders, state guidelines for 20 years have called for beds to be "securely fastened" in all but minimum-security jail areas. Although the Pitchess jail where Tiznor was killed opened in 1990, the facility was not required to meet those standards because the original plans were submitted to the state 10 years earlier.
Mike Bush, who reviews jail plans for the State Corrections Authority, said Friday he believed state field representatives had advised Los Angeles County officials to secure the beds in areas holding high-risk inmates.
The recommendation was not binding, Bush said, "but we ask facility managers in exit interviews: ‘Could you defend this if something happened?’ "
Steve Whitmore, Baca’s spokesman, said the department was within state guidelines because the area was classified as a minimum-security area — although it holds higher-risk offenders.
The North County Correctional Facility was intended to house a large number of inmate workers — those considered low-risk enough to work on landscape crews or in the laundry. As the jail population grew and became increasingly violent — and the Sheriff’s Department lacked the staff to open newer facilities — the dorms there were used to house more dangerous inmates.
Still, Gennaco said he was startled to learn jail officials considered the dorm where Tiznor was killed to be minimum-security. Tiznor was a convicted rapist in jail on a parole violation for failing to register as a sex offender.
"Why are you putting [medium- and high-security-risk inmates] in minimum-security areas?" he asked. "The answer is because they don’t have anywhere else to put them. The facilities don’t match up with the population."
Sheriff’s officials conceded that the decision to not secure the beds may have played a role in Tiznor’s slaying.
"If it was bolted down it probably couldn’t be picked up and thrown," Whitmore said.
Bunks at the North County Correctional Facility were unsecured so deputies could move them, he said.
"They delete beds. They add beds.
They change the configuration of the modules. They needed the flexibility," Whitmore said. "In light of what has occurred, absolutely we’re considering bolting the beds."
Securing the beds in dorms there, however, is "not that simple a process."
"We’ve got 1,273 double bunk beds and 392 triple bunk beds," he said. "So it’s a labor-intensive feat to bolt them all."
Investigators believe the Feb. 4 violence was greenlighted by Mexican Mafia prison gang leaders who ordered Latino inmates to attack blacks. Latinos have outnumbered black inmates in Los Angeles County jails since the late 1980s, and jail officials said allegiance to race is strongly enforced by inmate shot-callers.
Tiznor, who was black, apparently was targeted by white inmates allied with Latino gang members in what Baca has called a hate crime.
Eight days later another black inmate, Sean Anthony Thompson, 38, died after fighting with three younger Latino cellmates. Thompson was arrested last week after he ran a stop sign in Long Beach and police found what they suspected to be rock cocaine in his pocket. Although he was considered a medium security risk based on previous nonviolent felony convictions, Thompson was placed with three cellmates considered dangerous.
Black inmates in the jails said they feel vulnerable.
"We’re very paranoid. Everybody is under a lot of pressure. We don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s like combat in war. You have to stay ready," said William Barbarin, a 55-year-old black inmate, during an interview Thursday night at the downtown Inmate Reception Center. "We’re totally outnumbered. It’s way worse than it is on the streets."