Shackled in handcuffs, Gabriel Carrillo was being detained in a small break room near the visitors' lobby in Men's Central Jail when, he says, a Sheriff's deputy knocked him to the floor with an uppercut.
Carrillo, 5 feet 6 and 160 pounds, doubled over in pain. Three deputies began kicking and punching the baby-faced 23-year-old in his head and thigh, tearing his white T-shirt while blood splattered on his blue jeans and Air Jordans.
With each blow, Carrillo felt his body jerk as his head bounced up and down on the cold, county building floor. He briefly lost consciousness, only to wake to the sting of punches to his head and face.
Through eyes purple with bruises and nearly swollen shut, Carrillo could see blood pouring out of his head onto the floor.
"I'm not fucking resisting," he cried out.
Suddenly, Carrillo felt a blast of chemical spray. He was blinded and gasping for air as more punches pummeled his increasingly numb legs and torso. It was like being caught in a violent ocean wave, Carrillo recalls. Every time he tried to come up for air, another blow drove him back under.
"I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" Carrillo wheezed.
"Shut the fuck up," Carrillo claims a deputy said. "If you can talk, you can breathe."
Finally, Carrillo lay motionless, watching officers wipe his blood off the floor with clean towels, thinking to himself, "How did this happen? All I was trying to do was visit my brother in jail."
Carrillo arrived at Men's Central Jail, a dungeonlike fortress near downtown Los Angeles, around noon on Feb. 26 with his girlfriend, Grace Torres, to visit his younger brother, who was locked up on charges of carrying a concealed weapon.
It was a Saturday, and Torres was on call for her job at an employment agency. She says she was afraid of being fired if she missed a call, so she tucked her cellphone into her boot and sneaked it into the visitors' lobby, despite the signs prohibiting it. Carrillo, a general laborer who helped build a stage for an Academy Awards after-party next to the El Capitan Theater, says he forgot he had a phone in his pocket.
While they waited, Torres moved to scratch her foot and her phone fell onto the floor. Within minutes, she claims, deputies had confiscated the phones, handcuffed Carrillo and taken the two of them into the break room, where a deputy pushed Carrillo into the side of a refrigerator.
Carrillo admits that he mouthed off, telling the officer, "If I weren't in these handcuffs, it'd be a different situation and I wouldn't let myself get thrown around like this." He says he was trying to compensate for being scared.
The deputy, however, called for backup.
When the beating was over, an ambulance took Carrillo to the hospital. He could not open his right eye and received stitches above his eyebrow. A doctor told him he'd suffered chemical burns from the toxic spray. Photos obtained by L.A. Weekly show clear evidence of a severe beating to his head.
The county is prosecuting Carrillo, claiming he attacked the deputies and that the force was justified.
The beating was unusual in that Carrillo was a visitor and not an inmate. But the abuse he suffered is not uncommon. A growing chorus of inmates tells of broken noses, shattered jaws and other injuries from sustained beatings by Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies who serve as guards at Men's Central Jail.
Conditions at the jail, the largest in the world, have long been considered deplorable. For more than 35 years, civil rights organizations have worked with the Sheriff's Department to make improvements. But in recent years, they say, the severity and brazenness of abuse have escalated.
Men's Central Jail "is the worst facility in the country," says Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney for the ACLU of Southern California — the only outside organization today with regular access inside the jail. The jail "is the most violent, the most dangerous, and it's a cancer right in the heart of Los Angeles."
Twenty-five years ago, a decade after the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit to improve conditions at L.A. County jails, the civil rights organization was allowed to place a monitor inside the jails. One of the hopes was to curtail jailer abuse of inmates, 90 percent of whom are awaiting disposition of their cases and thus have not been found guilty of crimes.
Yet today, the number of inmate complaints to the ACLU about abuse by jailers at all county lockups is greater than ever, with a disproportionate number specifically from inmates at Men's Central Jail.
The ACLU says that as of a couple of years ago, it was receiving from inmates in county lockups three to four complaints per week that allege unprovoked abuse by deputies. It now fields six to seven complaints a week.