Wheelchair Hell in Men's Central Jail 

Disabled inmates crawling on the floor, barred from showers and denied care

Thursday, Dec 8 2011

The bullet had a hollow tip. Christian Reyes felt it punch through the skin below his ribs before exploding inside him. Fragments ripped through his organs and ricocheted off his bones. Several bullet shards shattered Reyes' spine — his lumbar vertebrae 1 through 5, to be exact — injuring his spinal cord and turning his legs to rubber.

Reyes, a skinny 19-year-old with wild, curly hair, had been hanging out across the street from his apartment complex in a tree-lined neighborhood near downtown in January 2008, when a black SUV sped past him and opened fire in a drive-by shooting. He never saw the gunman.

Reyes was rushed to Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center for surgery. Doctors told him he was paralyzed from the waist down. For two months, he stayed at the hospital, relearning life's basics: how to get around in his wheelchair, transfer onto a toilet, change his catheter and use a shower seat.

click to flip through (3) ILLUSTRATION BY MATT MAHURIN - Christian Reyes back at home
  • Christian Reyes back at home

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Near the end of March, doctors released Reyes from the hospital. Ten days later, however, the cops showed up at Reyes' home and arrested him on suspicion of firing a gun at several people less than a week before he'd been hospitalized. They charged him with four counts of attempted murder. (One and a half years later, Reyes pleaded no contest to one count of assault with a firearm and received three years of probation.)

Right after his arrest, as the officers carried the paralyzed Reyes off to Los Angeles County jail, they would not let him take his customized wheelchair or change his diaper, which was damp with urine — a presage of the horrors that lay ahead.

Like all inmates in L.A. County, his first stop was the Inmate Reception Center, or IRC, a temporary holding area where jail staff determine where to place each prisoner. There, Reyes says, he was given a wheelchair, "if you can call it that," which did not have the usual two large wheels in the rear — only four small wheels, meaning Reyes could not push himself around. Not only that, he says, but the wheelchair did not have footrests and "was all beat up like a bum owned it," held together by a patchwork of string and plastic zip-ties.

As soon as Reyes arrived at IRC, he could feel his bladder beginning to bulge and tried to use the toilet, but its entranceway was not wide enough to accommodate his wheelchair. He asked for a clean catheter so he could relieve himself.

"Over time, my bladder expanded so you could see it across the room," Reyes says. "I was so scared. It was like a little ball protruding out of the side of my belly. One wrong move and it felt like it was going to pop."

Reyes says he sat in the wheelchair for three agonizing days until someone finally gave him a catheter.

Meanwhile, Reyes' bowels were bursting. On his first day in the IRC, he defecated in his pants.

"I sat in my own feces for two days," Reyes says in a low voice, trying not to sound embarrassed. "Whenever I asked for help, they said I had to wait until the next shift of workers or for a doctor to approve it. I couldn't sleep a wink this whole time. For three days they didn't care and just told me to wait."

On his third day in the IRC, the jail staff cleaned Reyes, changed his diaper, allowed him to pee and moved him to the Medical Services Building inside the Twin Towers jail. There, Reyes slept for 48 hours straight. When he awoke, he was given a better wheelchair and clean catheters every four hours, as needed. He also had accessible toilets and showers and a helpful crew of nurses.

Reyes stayed there for about a month, but the decent treatment he received there was merely a break from the nightmare.

In spring 2008, Reyes was transferred to the 8100 unit of Men's Central Jail, a segregated dorm in which most inmates with wheelchairs are held. It is also where Reyes says he suffered nearly every form of violation imaginable under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

The toilets and showers were inaccessible, he says, and the jail staff failed to make accommodations, such as giving him more than a single clean catheter each day or providing many of his prescribed medications.

Reyes says he was denied access to some programs available to inmates without disabilities, including schooling, and was not given the same amount of recreation time as able-bodied inmates. In the 19 months he awaited trial for the shooting, Reyes says, although considered innocent under the law, he saw the sky and smelled fresh air fewer than a dozen times.

He says the jail staff even took away his wheelchair for four days. He describes those days as the worst of his life. Reyes claims he was forced to crawl and wiggle on his stomach to make it to the shower or get in line for his daily dose of Motrin.

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