ACLU Sues Sheriff Lee Baca & Undersheriff Paul Tanaka Over Long-Standing Deputy Violence Against Inmates

On July 22, LA County jail inmate Jonathan Goodwin says he witnessed several deputies beat and kick a fellow inmate whose hands were bound in shackles.

Nearly three long weeks later, says Goodwin, one of the deputies involved in the beating walked into Goodwin's cell to show him who was boss -- telling him, without explanation, to "cuff up." As Goodwin tells it, the next thing he knew, he was up against the wall in the hallway while two deputies punched him in the head.

Just as one of the deputies cracked his fist across Goodwin's jaw, says Goodwin, other deputies nearby joined in on what would turn out to be a tooth-rattling gang-beating. Goodwin says he did not receive any medical treatment but was criminally charged by the deputies with causing a disturbance.

Today, 29-year-old Goodwin, alongside inmate Alex Rosas, 24, who also claims he was beaten by deputies, took the first step down the long and hopeful road toward justice.

On behalf of the inmates, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class-action lawsuit against the top members of the sheriff''s department - including Sheriff Lee Baca, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and Dennis Burns, head of the department's custody operations - for violating their Constitutional rights to reasonable protection from violence and excessive force.

The ACLU's Peter Eliasberg is encouraged that Baca has recently committed to addressing many of the problems, but says, "this suit is directed at them because they have allowed deputies to go unpunished, covered up their behavior and for years made no effort to reform this broken system."

In its vastly detailed 76-page complaint, the ACLU hammers Baca, Burns and Tanaka - who, somewhat oddly, also serves as the Mayor of Gardena - for turning a blind eye to a years-long stream of compelling evidence of abusive deputies.

The ACLU accuses the department's top brass of having "acquiesced in, fostered, and implicitly authorized" the abuse by failing to supervise deputies, by failing to perform meaningful investigations into reports of abuse, and by failing to hold guilty deputies accountable.

States the lawsuit:

Rampant violence at the Jails has resulted from a failure of leadership at the top level of the Department. Such a pervasive, deeply-entrenched, and notorious pattern of excessive force could not have continued unabated over a period of many years without a code of silence on the part of front-line and supervisory staff, combined with management staff's failure to require accountability, and their engaging in an outright cover-up.

Throughout the lawsuit, the ACLU provides reams of examples of inmates claiming to have witnessed beatings or been abused. One of them is Gabriel Carrillo, whose beating by deputies in the visiting lobby of Men's Central Jail was first reported last spring by LA Weekly.

The lawsuit chronicles a history of evidence of abuse and provides plenty of examples of other related issues, including deputies using inmates to beat on other inmates, abuse victims experiencing retaliation and racially motivated violence against inmates.

In one instance this last August, for example, the lawsuit states that a deputy repeatedly slammed the face of an African-Ameican inmate into a wall, after which the deputy allegedly said, "I hate you motherfucking monkeys. Damn nigger!"

Overall, the violence against inmates is describes as:

Slamming inmates' heads into walls, punching them in the face with fists, kicking them with boots, and shooting them multiple times with tasers - and for these beatings to result in serious injuries to the inmates, including broken legs, fractured eye sockets, shattered jaws, broken teeth, severe head injuries, nerve damage, dislocated joints, collapsed lungs, and wounds requiring dozens of stitches and staples.

Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, calls Baca's jails the "shame of the nation," and says the goal of the lawsuit is, "to ensure and end at long last to the reign of terror by deputies against inmates."

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