Although the inmate entrance is called “Reception” at L.A. County's only all-female jail, that term is loosely applied. Cold, stark and made of concrete and steel, Reception is where women enter Lynwood's Century Regional Detention Facility for the first time or return to their jail beds from a long day at court.
The women are sorted, scanned and labeled with color-coded shirts: yellow for those with mental illness, blue for general population — the list goes on.
This is the door through which Los Angeles cartoonist Elana Pritchard walked last August to serve about two months for violating a judge's restraining order. She then did a few more weeks at Twin Towers in downtown L.A. In December, L.A. Weekly published cartoons she'd drawn on paper scraps, using a golf pencil, that documented what she saw on the inside.
Pritchard's drawings chronicled how women were denied showers for up to a week at a time, used a toilet as a low-tech “speaker” to talk to men on the floor below, and were required to undergo humiliating vaginal checks called “squat and cough”— stripping naked and spreading open their vaginas to let deputies see if they were hiding anything, from drugs to small guns.
Soon after the story ran, the women's jail overseer, Capt. Maria Gutierrez, asked to meet with Pritchard to sort through her complaints. Gutierrez later explained to the Weekly, “Of course we take these types of allegations seriously.”
But it has been unusual for the Sheriff's Department to care what an inmate who publicly slams the jails has to say. “It seems like most of the problems in the jail weren't due to policy, it was due to certain deputies abusing their position,” Pritchard says. “There were policies when I was there … that clearly weren't being enforced.”
The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department has been riddled with bad blood and bad press for years, prompting longtime Sheriff Lee Baca to abruptly resign from his powerful, elected office in early 2014. He left amid an FBI investigation of his jailers that resulted in convictions of several deputies for brutality and other crimes.
In December, “outsider” Jim McDonnell was sworn in as sheriff, elected in a landslide by L.A. County voters. McDonnell had a long career with LAPD and was chief of the Long Beach Police Department. Perhaps most attractive to voters, he was not from the Sheriff's Department.
Now the L.A. public, the inmates and the sheriff's deputies union are waiting to see if McDonnell can reform a violent cowboy culture that has thrived, particularly in the county jails.
During her time inside, Pritchard saw major disparities among the jailers when it came to basic humanity. She was inexplicably issued a size 9 pair of shoes when she arrived, but she wears a size 6. When she asked for help, a jailer told her “No” and followed it up with, “Because I said so, that's why.”
After Pritchard tripped over her feet for more than a week, “Ms. Robinson,” a jailer well liked by the inmates, heard about the problem and got Pritchard a pair of shoes in her size right away.
One of the biggest new reforms at the Lynwood women's jail has been the installation of a high-tech body scanner meant to sidestep the demeaning squat-and-cough procedure. While it's necessary to check inmates for contraband, Gutierrez says, using a scanner like the ones at airports allows the inmates far more dignity.
Acquisition of the body scanner, installed in November, had been in the works for some time and was not the result of McDonnell's election. There are more to come in other county jails, if the funding works out.
While some reforms began under Baca, McDonnell had a hand in pushing for them as a member of the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence, according to Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald. The commission, created in 2011 by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, was tasked with figuring out how often county jailers used excessive force, and how to fix it.
While problems such as jail brutality are systemic and stubborn, others can be dealt with quickly. That's why, at the Lynwood facility, Capt. Gutierrez is addressing several problems Pritchard vividly depicted in her cartoons. “I have so much authority and power, if I don't use it right, shame on me,” Gutierrez says.
Gutierrez now requires deputies to indicate, in a computerized system, if the cell lights go off for any reason during normal waking hours — this, to prevent jailers from forcing inmates to spend half their day in darkness, as Pritchard said happened to her and others. Gutierrez says she is skeptical that jailers were plunging inmates into darkness, but she instituted the tracking to be sure.
In addition, deputies now must offer inmates showers while they're being held in so-called “temporary housing,” Gutierrez says. Women had previously been stuck in these holding areas without being allowed a shower for up to a week, according to Pritchard.
Inmates now also receive seven pairs of underwear each week instead of four or five — a seemingly minor victory but one needed for a female population. “Men can live with five pairs,” Gutierrez says with a smile.
The broader, more systemic problems will take more time and probably will meet with resistance from Baca holdovers and some in the rank and file. In part to address that, sometime this summer the department will begin to train newly hired deputies and jail staff on how to de-escalate situations with mentally ill inmates — a key step as McDonnell tries to catch up with metropolitan areas that long ago undertook such reforms.
McDonnell, who was not available for comment, has made the treatment of inmates with mental health problems a key priority, according to Assistant Sheriff McDonald, and is focusing on replacing notorious L.A. Men's Central Jail with a “correctional treatment facility” with far more space devoted to medical and mental health treatment.
So far it has been “encouraging” to see a sheriff who supports treating, not merely jailing, inmates with mental illnesses, says Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, which has been among the department's most outspoken critics. But while hiring and training new deputies may reduce rank-and-file resistance to change, Eliasberg says the public should be “outraged” that, for two decades, mentally ill inmates have had their constitutional rights routinely violated.
The L.A. County jail system is the largest in the nation, and McDonnell will have to find methods that escaped the overwhelmed Baca to hold his people accountable, discipline those who are out of line and reward those who do well.
“Everything begins with how you act as a human being,” McDonald says. “How I act and how I behave will permeate with the people below me. And it does permeate.”
Gutierrez, who has been with the Sheriff's Department since 1991 and has 30 years in law enforcement, sounds upbeat about the potential for change. “We're here to serve [the inmates],” she says. “We're not here to play judge and jury — they already did that.”
McDonald believes the L.A. Sheriff's Department is the focus of “probably one of the most substantial correctional reform efforts going on in the nation.”
Jeff Steck, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which represents more than 7,000 deputies and district attorney investigators, says the new sheriff “understands law enforcement to a much greater extent than those who were here before him.”
But given the department's history and the serious challenges McDonnell faces, it could be a while before the public agrees the jails have changed.