LA County gets “Abu Ghraib”?

With the world’s attention distracted by some off-color cartoons, it looks like we’ve got a little domestic Abu Ghraib developing in Los Angeles. The official hand-wringing about “core values” is as nauseating as it is requisite. From the LA Times, Feb. 18:

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.


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’ [Detention Center] North facility, a disturbance broken up by deputies using tear gas.


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.”


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.

See our last posts on the internal police state and the niceties of the California prison system.