Wheelchair Hell in Men's Central Jail
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.
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.)
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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.
Contrary to his doctor's instructions, Reyes was denied any physical therapy to aid his recovery, he says, and was made to live in horrible conditions.
"Imagine 12 men in a dorm all in diapers and sitting in their own feces," he says. "It smelled like a combination of what people had for lunch that day and pus from people's open wounds. I've been in a wheelchair now for three years, and the jail is by far the worst place I've ever seen for a disabled person."
Reyes' allegations are not an aberration. He joins a chorus of disabled inmates who claim conditions at the jail for the disabled are inadequate and, in many instances, illegal. Reyes is one of 70 current and former inmates involved in a class-action lawsuit against Los Angeles County.
Spearheaded by the Disability Rights Legal Center at Loyola Law School, the lawsuit accuses embattled L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca and his jail supervisors of knowingly violating federal Americans With Disabilities Act regulations for years and still not complying with the law.
Why would jailers take wheelchairs away from injured or paralyzed inmates, a key allegation in the lawsuit? Saving money could be a reason.
During a sworn deposition in August, Sheriff's Department captain Daniel Cruz, who served as commanding officer of Men's Central Jail from April 2008 until December 2010, said it costs $700 to $800 a night to house disabled inmates in the specialized "8100 unit" — seven to eight times the $100 that Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore says it costs to keep someone in the general jail population.
At the moment, Baca is under a microscope, as the FBI and county supervisors investigate a stampede of complaints about deputies who physically abuse inmates, especially at Men's Central Jail. Some critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, are calling for Baca's resignation. So far, Baca has played dumb, insisting he didn't know about the alleged brutish culture among jailers in his jail — and blaming his own command staff for knowing and failing to tell him.
Reyes and disabled inmates like him say they are glad the FBI is investigating potentially criminal behavior on the part of some jailhouse deputies, but they insist that other human rights abuses occurring at the jail are not being investigated and that they need immediate attention, too.
The phones in Shawna Parks' office started to ring in 2007. As legal director of the Disability Rights Legal Center, a suite of fashionable offices in the heart of downtown L.A., the energetic civil rights attorney, sporting an upscale-librarian look, was accustomed to getting calls from people who wanted to complain. But these calls were different — they were from inmates inside the jail.
Like Reyes, inmates were reaching out for help, describing disturbing conditions, specifically a lack of accessible bathrooms in the Inmate Reception Center. Parks heard numerous accounts of prisoners being kept at the temporary holding facility for two and three days without access to a toilet. From there, it only got worse.
As Parks and her staff began to dig, talking to other inmates and their families, a dark secret began to emerge: The government-run jail was violating federal ADA regulations. Parks says she learned that physical barriers in the dorms where the disabled are housed included a lack of grab bars to help the men in wheelchairs transfer to a toilet and the illegal presence of a curb in the showers, which prevents wheelchairs from entering.
She says jail staff, including doctors and deputies, were not providing disability accommodations such as medications, safe transportation to court or to a doctor's appointment, properly working wheelchairs or crutches, and simple but crucial things like clean catheters or fresh bedding if an inmate soiled his sheets.
In addition, inmates such as Reyes told Parks that, because of their disability and the fact that they are segregated from the general population, they were not being given equal access to the roof at Men's Central Jail for recreation time as the able-bodied inmates were, and were being denied their right to schooling, vocational programming, physical therapy and access to the law library and commissary.
Lastly, Parks says, inmates informed her that their wheelchairs often were taken away even if they were physically impaired. The men were "declassified" — found to no longer need a wheelchair — and moved to a non-wheelchair dorm. There, they told her, they often had to fend for themselves in a general population cell, often faced with bunk beds and few accommodations for the disabled.
"I couldn't believe this was all going on literally right under our noses," Parks says, removing her glasses and rolling her eyes toward the ceiling in exasperation. "And in terms of their rights under federal statute, it was pretty horrific. I couldn't believe that this was happening in L.A., with all the public-interest lawyers and scrutiny on the jail — and that this had flown under the radar."
Hoping to avoid litigation, Parks, who was named Attorney of the Year by California Lawyer magazine in 2011, approached Sheriff Baca and the L.A. County Counsel's office with a list of problems and solutions. But it wasn't that easy.
"Negotiations in 2007 did not get anywhere," she says. "There was not enough commitment on their part."
So, in May 2008, Parks and the ACLU sued L.A. County on behalf of disabled inmates, including Reyes, to force Baca to adhere to federal ADA regulations in the jail.
Parks then brought in outside ADA expert Logan Hopper, who founded the Commission on Disabled Persons in Oakland and serves on the U.S. Access Board's Public Rights-of-Way Accessibility Advisory Committee. Hopper was allowed entry to the notoriously off-limits Men's Central Jail in 2007, 2008 and 2010.
His initial 2008 report confirmed what inmates were saying. Hopper noted extensive physical barriers to toilets and showers in the cells designated for wheelchair-using inmates, as well as in the law library, educational facilities and visiting areas. Hopper also was troubled by the segregation and lack of access to programming for disabled inmates, as well as what appeared to be a practice by jail doctors of arbitrarily "declassifying" inmates, confiscating their wheelchairs and moving inmates with some use of their legs — but impaired mobility — from the wheelchair dorm to a unit with fewer accommodations for the disabled.
"Through a practice of 'declassifying' inmates with disabilities from medical housing," Hopper wrote in 2008, "they are transferred to a different housing unit within Men's Central Jail ... which is very overcrowded and lacks accessible features, such as grab bars or shower seats.
"A policy of providing accessible housing and accommodations only for [the] full-time wheelchair users fails to recognize that many persons who do not rely on a wheelchair have serious physical disabilities that restrict certain types of physical activities. The lack of accommodations for the individual's disability can be extremely harmful to that person's well-being and long-term functioning."
After touring the jail again in October 2010, Hopper found that Baca had taken few measurable actions during the elapsed two years. In a sworn statement to the court, Hopper said, "Most of the problems that I identified initially in my 2008 report appear to remain."
The lack of serious effort by Baca was particularly troublesome, Parks says, considering that "we keep tabs on these issues across the country — and the problems here are among the most severe."
ADA regulations are enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice, which has the power to obtain civil penalties of up to $55,000 for the first violation and $110,000 for each subsequent violation. Parks, however, does not blame the feds for sleeping on the job. The ADA regulations were intended to be enforced by private parties seeking redress in civil court, which is exactly what she is trying to do.
Parks places the blame on a mix of people, including Baca and his underlings.
Although she won't name them, one would have to include Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, said by some to actually run the department for Baca. Baca has publicly stated that he was kept in the dark for years by underlings regarding abuse problems in Men's Central Jail.
"Baca is somewhat to blame," Parks says, "because he runs the show. And I think a lot of senior-level staff at the Sheriff's Department have known about these issues for a long time and haven't stepped forward the way they need to."
But citing the pending lawsuit, Parks refused to identify any senior staff or to name the deputies with whom she has been negotiating for change.
Parks also blames the five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, saying, "It is true that Baca is elected and that they can't tell him exactly what to do. But they could've told him that not violating the rights of people with disabilities is a priority — and a political priority."
All five county supervisors — Gloria Molina, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Zev Yaroslavsky, Don Knabe and Michael Antonovich — declined to comment. Baca, through his spokeswoman, Nicole Nishida, also declined to comment, referring L.A. Weekly's questions to the county counsel's office.
For the most part, says assistant county counsel Roger Granbo, the Sheriff's Department does not dispute that it needs to improve accommodations for the disabled.
"We are in agreement that [disabled inmates] should have the same access to programming as anybody else," Granbo says. "We are all in agreement that accommodations for the disabled should happen. There is no disagreement there."
This sentiment echoes that of Whitmore, one of Baca's top aides, who told the Weekly in a May 19 article headlined "Men's County Jail Visitor Viciously Beaten by Guards" that the big, old Men's Central Jail should be shuttered. Whitmore said that in the meantime, safety measures such as surveillance cameras should be placed in the jail's hallways and individual cells to protect deputies — and inmates.
Yet Baca has been sheriff since 1998 and has failed to fix many problems in the jail, including addressing deputy violence and resolving the still-inadequate accommodations for disabled inmates.
Granbo says, "These things slip through the cracks with a jail population of 15,000 — they do. But the sheriff is committed to making sure all the stuff is working and available to the folks who need it."
Inmates, however, are skeptical.
"The people with the jail will say stuff to try to cover their ass," Reyes says, "but they haven't really done anything to really make it better. It's all bullshit."
Scott Morgan, an obese member of the Vagos outlaw motorcycle club, was carried into the L.A. County jail on a gurney, howling in pain from a broken femur.
Already on parole, he had tried to run from the cops during a traffic stop in late February 2006 and wound up with a bullet in his left leg. After surgeons placed a metal rod running from inside Morgan's hip to his knee, Morgan's orthopedist ordered that he use a wheelchair half the time and crutches the other half to slowly help strengthen his bum leg.
At first, the doctors serving the 8100 unit of Men's Central Jail let Morgan use a wheelchair, but that didn't last.
Morgan says he was declassified and stripped of his wheelchair after a doctor at the jail reversed his orthopedist's order and made Morgan use crutches 100 percent of the time instead of 50 percent.
"They never gave me a reason why," Morgan says. "The doctor comes to the 8100 dorm and we all line up and she says, 'Why are you in the wheelchair?' And if you're not a quadriplegic or a full-on paraplegic, they declassify you. They get you off that floor."
Weighing more than 300 pounds, Morgan was concerned when he saw the 300-pound weight limit on the flimsy aluminum crutches he was issued. He was downright worried when he noticed that the screws and bolts were missing and had been replaced with plastic zip-ties to lash the crutches together.
Over the next few weeks, Morgan says, the zip-ties broke several times under the strain of his size, and each time he tumbled to the ground he felt lucky that he hadn't been seriously hurt. Then, in early May, when Morgan was taking a shower, his crutch got caught in a drain hole. This time, as he crashed down onto the shower floor, he refractured his femur and broke the metal rod running through his leg.
"I was in so much pain it was crazy," Morgan says. "I never would have re-broken my leg if they didn't declassify me and take away my wheelchair."
Yet, he says, things only got worse after that. Doctors did not send him to the hospital or take X-rays of his leg for a full week, he claims in a lawsuit against Baca and the Sheriff's Department. On the eighth day, Morgan says, he happened to have a follow-up appointment scheduled with an orthopedist at Los Angeles County Medical Center to check on his gunshot wound. There, the specialist took X-rays of Morgan's leg, discovered that the femur had fractured again and ordered Morgan to use a wheelchair full-time.
Then, for nearly three agonizing weeks, Morgan says, he cried himself to sleep, begging deputies and doctors to let him see the orthopedist again to treat his pain and set his leg. It was only by contorting his enfeebled limb into an impossible position — after all, he says, he couldn't feel a thing below his hip — that he convinced the jail staff to send him to the orthopedist again.
But when Morgan showed up on June 7, 2006, to ride the county inmate bus to the doctor, he says, deputies turned him away, telling him there was no room for his wheelchair.
A week later, Morgan again had an appointment to see an orthopedist but once more was left behind because of a lack of space on the bus.
Four days after that, according to Morgan's lawsuit, Superior Court Judge Rubin Rand stepped in, ordering the Sheriff's Department to get Morgan's leg examined. But it didn't seem to matter. From June through December, Morgan says, the sheriffs kept him from going to the orthopedist a dozen different times because there was "no room" in the bus for his wheelchair.
"I felt so helpless," he says, "but there was nothing I could do. I was trapped."
By April 2007, nearly a year after he broke his leg in the shower, Morgan says, he still had not received the medical attention or surgery he needed. Instead, doctors at Men's Central Jail again tried to take away his wheelchair and declassify him.
"The doctor said I didn't need a wheelchair and that I could walk, even though I said that I couldn't," he says.
A deputy handed him a walker, Morgan says, and made him use it to get in line for pill call.
"The walker immediately bent in half because of my obese size," Morgan says, "and I twisted my leg badly. The deputy took one look at me and gave me back the wheelchair, despite what the doctor said. And thank God."
For two years, Morgan says, he went without surgery and suffered at the L.A. County jail. He says he did not receive treatment or surgery until after May 2008. At that time, having pleaded guilty to resisting arrest with a firearm in the 2006 incident and agreeing to a seven-year prison sentence, he was moved to Wasco State Prison.
Morgan finally got surgery on his leg at UC Davis toward the end of 2008, when he says doctors informed him he had developed nerve palsy and, moreover, that he would never walk again.
"I used to be a very aggressive prosecutor in Santa Barbara," says Morgan's attorney, Joshua Lynn, "but you treat people humanely. That's what makes 'us' different from 'them,' right? That's the whole point. They refused him access to a wheelchair and forced him to use those woefully inadequate crutches, and when he rebreaks his leg, they either ignore it or tell him the bus is too full to take him to his doctor. And now he'll be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. It's horrifying."
Parks agrees, saying that doctors at the jail routinely deny people with various forms of mobility impairment the use of a wheelchair.
"One of the things we now know through the litigation process is that they have medical staff whose job it is to declassify people and review inmates with an eye toward taking them out of the 8100 unit," Parks says. "So if that's their job and if they're any good at it, that means that they are declassifying a lot of people."
If an inmate is declassified and cannot walk very far, it's likely that he will not be able to move the distances often required to get his medications down the hall, talk to his family or his attorney in the visitors area, which is in a different part of the jail, or even make it to the bathroom without help from a deputy or a fellow inmate. He can be left helpless.
According to court documents, the county argues that the declassifications are based on "medical judgment," but Parks counters, "The pattern of problems, as well as the well-documented nature of the inmates' disabilities, belies this explanation."
Asked about declassifications, Assistant County Counsel Roger Granbo says, "I am not going to talk about that publicly."
Parks says she does not yet know why the jail makes a habit out of declassifying inmates, but that the current system is too black-and-white.
For example, she says, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department has "no classification for people who can walk five feet but not more than that," she says. "You're either paralyzed and get a wheelchair, or you're not and you can walk and you don't get a wheelchair."
Reyes says that's what happened to him.
He had been locked up for about a year, he says, when a fellow inmate needed a push in his wheelchair. So Reyes propped himself up by leaning on the inmate's chair and pushed him. A deputy saw Reyes, he says, and within a week doctors had declassified him, taken his wheelchair and moved him out of the 8100 unit.
"They took my chair from me for four days," he says. "I was dragging myself to the bathroom, into the shower and across the floor through the medicine lines. Plus, of course, there were no handrails in the showers or the toilets. It was the worst days I ever spent in there. They took away my chair and I literally couldn't do anything but lie in bed and pray."
In October, disabled inmates Peter Johnson and Joe Gonzalez telephoned L.A. Weekly to describe the behind-the-scenes conditions — both good and bad — inside Men's Central Jail.
The 8100 wheelchair unit, they both said, has accessible toilets and showers in a largely unused common area but not in the individual cells, where barriers to such amenities still exist. The Inmate Reception Center has been fixed, they say, with two new accessible bathrooms.
"I realize I'm not staying at a Hilton," says Gonzalez, paralyzed from his left hip down, "but these are basic necessities for our health."
The improvements are among a handful made over the past few years. When asked for a list of alterations and upgrades, Granbo says, "That's litigation-related, so we wouldn't disclose a thing like that."
Inmates and advocates say the jail is still a long way from acceptable conditions, and the bulk of improvements have been simple cosmetic and construction fixes that do not address widespread, systemic problems.
"I still see guys getting urinary tract infections because they're not being given clean catheters," says Gonzalez, who has been in jail since 2009 on an attempted murder charge. "And no one will help you transfer onto the toilet except maybe another inmate. Most programming is still not being given to us as an option because we're separated from the rest of the jail, and while it may be a tiny bit better now, to me it's remained the same."
Johnson, a paraplegic who has been in and out of jail numerous times over the past four years for petty theft, says he still is not being given a decent wheelchair. This summer, when he was in the 8100 unit, his wheelchair did not have footrests. As a result, he says, his feet dragged along the floor and got caught in the wheels. Because of his paralysis, Johnson could not feel his feet and did not realize he was crushing them until another inmate noticed his bloody, mangled toes.
It happened again in October, he says.
"With no footrests, my feet are just getting trampled, but I can't feel my legs," Johnson says. "They are trying to accommodate us, but it's not happening like it's supposed to."
Perpetually upbeat, Parks is focused on solutions and not the blame game. If she had a magic wand, she says, Baca and the Sheriff's Department would remove the remaining barriers to the toilets and showers and offer equal educational and vocational opportunities to the disabled.
Finally, she would make Baca implement a consistent medical review process for wheelchair declassifications.
That would be "not only good for our clients," says Parks, "but good for the Sheriff's Department. It's not a good thing liabilitywise to have people falling or being discriminated against."
Both sides in the lawsuit have toured the jails and made recommendations. As is typical, the plaintiff's expert — Hopper — is more damning than the expert hired by the county, whose interpretation of ADA law is far more permissive. Next the two experts will view the jail together and issue a joint recommendation.
"We know MCJ is an old and antiquated building," Granbo says. "The Sheriff's Department has made some changes, and there are more changes that we may have to do, but we are trying to work cooperatively. It's taking so long because of the litigation process, but both sides have the same goal."
Meanwhile, Christian Reyes, now 21, lives with his aunt in the apartment near where he was shot. The scars from jail run deep — both mentally and physically.
Before his release from jail in October 2009, Reyes says, he was riding in the transport van back to the jail from court, but the spaces in the van for a wheelchair were all occupied. So he folded up his wheelchair and heaved his body onto a metal bench that was missing seat belts.
Suddenly, he says, the driver swerved and Reyes was thrown up against a metal cage in front of him. He felt his back pop and soon he could not feel his left hand or arm because it had gone numb. More than two years later, the injuries he suffered inside the jail van still give Reyes trouble. He says the fall damaged a nerve running from his spine to his hand.
Throughout the day — when Reyes is not in physical therapy — his hand will go numb or lock up on him. Sometimes he can't grip a can of Coke or hold the controller for his video games, which he plays to kill time at home since he cannot yet work.
Sitting in his living room, Reyes rubs the area near his ribs where the bullet entered his body and reflects on his time in jail, searching for the right words.
"I think the most important thing people need to know," he says, "is that they simply treat wheelchair people like dirt."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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