Allegations of abuse have been raining down on the L.A. County Sheriff's Department since springtime. LA Weekly writer Chris Vogel's "Men's County Jail Visitor Viciously Beaten by Guards" opened the floodgates for more testimonies, and lawsuits, from inmates who say they were subjected to a terrifying culture of violence that deputies have created within the prisons. (As if being in prison wasn't bad enough.)
Though a recent high-profile ACLU report aired hundreds of shocking victim testimonies, and triggered a larger FBI investigation, inmates have been struggling to unveil the sick reality of the department, under the non-leadership of Sheriff Lee Baca, for years. Take the case of Shawne Fletcher, currently in U.S. District Court:
Fletcher filed a lawsuit in 2008 claiming that on June 18, 2006, he was grope-searched and beaten senseless by a pack of deputies at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility while waiting in line to get pills for his mental illness.
A video interview of Fletcher a few days after the incident shows his left eye still swollen beyond visibility and his lips so bruised he has trouble speaking. As is policy, deputies grill him about what happened, but he has trouble answering their loaded questions.
"[A deputy] yanked me off the wall, and when he yanked me, I lost my balance," Fletcher tells his interviewer. "And I just fell into somebody, and they just kicked my ass. They stomped the shit out of me -- that's what happened."
"You just fell into this deputy, or you grabbed him?" the lady deputy asks.
"They yanked me off the wall."
"My question was, did you not pretty much bear hug this deputy? Your arms went around him."
"I'm asking you."
"Are you asking me, or were you there? ... Because I don't remember. I remember being yanked off the wall and losing balance and then I ran into somebody."
"Did you hit the deputy?"
"I never swung at nobody."
"You never hit any deputy?"
"I never swung at no deputy."
"But did you ever hit a deputy?"
"How am I going to hit somebody without using my hands? I never swung at nobody, I don't remember that."
The back-and-forth continues on like this, with the interviewer trying to get Fletcher to say he fought back when the deputy slammed him against the wall, and a disoriented Fletcher insisting the only thing he remembers is coming under full attack -- pepper spray, hard boots to the ribcage, the works.
"Did you not spit at the deputies?" she asks later on.
"Spit? I was bleeding," he answers.
"Did you spit at the deputies?"
"I couldn't breathe. What are you talking about? My face was down on the ground. When I came through, I was laying in blood."
"Were you continuing to fight the deputies and try to get up?"
"What? I couldn't breathe."
And so on. Unfortunately, Fletcher can't afford a lawyer, so he wrote the entire lawsuit himself; it's riddled with court-unfriendly language like "Deputy Eagar then began searching my celly" and "This doctor is on some gay shit man!"
But his sister, Dawn Fletcher, says learning about the legal system and how he can fight for the future safety of powerless inmates like himself have helped him get through the rest of his time in prison. She says he's set to be released next month.
A witness statement from inmate Michael Baldwin, included in the lawsuit, sees the beating from further up in the "pill call" line, outside Fletcher's immediate pummeled sphere. Baldwin alleges the following (stet throughout):
"As we were lined up against th wall faceing away from the med line, deputy's started to make comments to us to not look around. The deputy's started to kick inmates feet and also search us, myself as well. As doing the search [they] were handling [our] privet part with force. Makeing a lot of guy holler out in pain [and slamming] there heads on the wall causeing more pain. After I was searched, I looked down the role a bit and I can see a problem going on. And then I see deupty's hiting Mr. Fletcher, about the face area. Then they drag him out the line still beating him. Deputy's drag him to the other side of the wall by the mail box. [Where] at this time, [the] deputy's started slaming his head into the mail box, blood was flying everywere.
By this time there were anywhere from 8 to 10 deputy's hitting him stomping him he looked to me to be [unconscious] at one time. His head was so [swollen] one couldn't even see any eyes at all. ... Actually I thought Mr. Fletcher was dead. But before they dragged him out they [pepper] sprayed him in the face and then put a black mask on his face. We never seen him [again]. Two day's later they do the same thing to another inmate."
Pretty much lines up with the ACLU allegations and the many tragic tales that are just now emerging after what appears to be years of almost haze-like bullying within America's largets jail system.
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(Just yesterday, Vogel wrote of another man, Troy Duncan, who's suing after he allegedly got his head bashed in by deputies while merely visiting someone in an Altadena jail.)
"Los Angeles County jails are rapidly developing a reputation as perhaps the worst in the nation," Margaret Winter, a Washington, D.C., attorney who leads the ACLU's National Prison Project effort, told Vogel in March. "I'm basing that it's the worst on that I've never seen this accumulation of violence. The severity, the frequency and the boldness is stunning, and I believe unprecedented."
Apparently, the bloodied inmates have been trying to tell us that for years.