Shackled in handcuffs, Gabriel Carrillo was being detained in a small break room near the visitors' lobby in Men's Central Jail when, he says, a Sheriff's deputy knocked him to the floor with an uppercut.
Carrillo, 5 feet 6 and 160 pounds, doubled over in pain. Three deputies began kicking and punching the baby-faced 23-year-old in his head and thigh, tearing his white T-shirt while blood splattered on his blue jeans and Air Jordans.
With each blow, Carrillo felt his body jerk as his head bounced up and down on the cold, county building floor. He briefly lost consciousness, only to wake to the sting of punches to his head and face.
Through eyes purple with bruises and nearly swollen shut, Carrillo could see blood pouring out of his head onto the floor.
“I'm not fucking resisting,” he cried out.
Suddenly, Carrillo felt a blast of chemical spray. He was blinded and gasping for air as more punches pummeled his increasingly numb legs and torso. It was like being caught in a violent ocean wave, Carrillo recalls. Every time he tried to come up for air, another blow drove him back under.
“I can't breathe! I can't breathe!” Carrillo wheezed.
“Shut the fuck up,” Carrillo claims a deputy said. “If you can talk, you can breathe.”
Finally, Carrillo lay motionless, watching officers wipe his blood off the floor with clean towels, thinking to himself, “How did this happen? All I was trying to do was visit my brother in jail.”
Carrillo arrived at Men's Central Jail, a dungeonlike fortress near downtown Los Angeles, around noon on Feb. 26 with his girlfriend, Grace Torres, to visit his younger brother, who was locked up on charges of carrying a concealed weapon.
It was a Saturday, and Torres was on call for her job at an employment agency. She says she was afraid of being fired if she missed a call, so she tucked her cellphone into her boot and sneaked it into the visitors' lobby, despite the signs prohibiting it. Carrillo, a general laborer who helped build a stage for an Academy Awards after-party next to the El Capitan Theater, says he forgot he had a phone in his pocket.
While they waited, Torres moved to scratch her foot and her phone fell onto the floor. Within minutes, she claims, deputies had confiscated the phones, handcuffed Carrillo and taken the two of them into the break room, where a deputy pushed Carrillo into the side of a refrigerator.
Carrillo admits that he mouthed off, telling the officer, “If I weren't in these handcuffs, it'd be a different situation and I wouldn't let myself get thrown around like this.” He says he was trying to compensate for being scared.
The deputy, however, called for backup.
When the beating was over, an ambulance took Carrillo to the hospital. He could not open his right eye and received stitches above his eyebrow. A doctor told him he'd suffered chemical burns from the toxic spray. Photos obtained by L.A. Weekly show clear evidence of a severe beating to his head.
The county is prosecuting Carrillo, claiming he attacked the deputies and that the force was justified.
The beating was unusual in that Carrillo was a visitor and not an inmate. But the abuse he suffered is not uncommon. A growing chorus of inmates tells of broken noses, shattered jaws and other injuries from sustained beatings by Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies who serve as guards at Men's Central Jail.
Conditions at the jail, the largest in the world, have long been considered deplorable. For more than 35 years, civil rights organizations have worked with the Sheriff's Department to make improvements. But in recent years, they say, the severity and brazenness of abuse have escalated.
Men's Central Jail “is the worst facility in the country,” says Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney for the ACLU of Southern California — the only outside organization today with regular access inside the jail. The jail “is the most violent, the most dangerous, and it's a cancer right in the heart of Los Angeles.”
Twenty-five years ago, a decade after the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit to improve conditions at L.A. County jails, the civil rights organization was allowed to place a monitor inside the jails. One of the hopes was to curtail jailer abuse of inmates, 90 percent of whom are awaiting disposition of their cases and thus have not been found guilty of crimes.
Yet today, the number of inmate complaints to the ACLU about abuse by jailers at all county lockups is greater than ever, with a disproportionate number specifically from inmates at Men's Central Jail.
The ACLU says that as of a couple of years ago, it was receiving from inmates in county lockups three to four complaints per week that allege unprovoked abuse by deputies. It now fields six to seven complaints a week.
“Los Angeles County jails are rapidly developing a reputation as perhaps the worst in the nation,” says Margaret Winter, a Washington, D.C., attorney who leads the ACLU's National Prison Project effort to combat abuses in jails. “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.”
Winter recently handled a trial in Arizona involving abuses in the Maricopa County jail under hard-line Sheriff Joe Arpaio. She says, “The degree of violence is no comparison with the frequency and savagery we see in L.A. County jails.”
Kelly Knapp, an attorney for the Prison Law Office in San Francisco, says L.A. County's Men's Central Jail “is known as notoriously bad in California and nationwide. It's crumbling down and is overcrowded … and I think when we talk about conditions, old and crumbling down, they go hand in hand with abuse.”
The scope of the problem at the jail is difficult to assess because the Sheriff's Department keeps much of its information regarding force incidents and abuse out of public view.
The department has constructed a cone of silence around the issue of guard-on-inmate abuse and, according to the ACLU, does not disclose much information about excessive force — not details of internal investigations, not how it determines what is or is not “reasonable force,” not the disciplinary actions, if any, taken against offending guards, not the number of complaints inmates make through the inmate grievance process. Attorneys who sue on behalf of abused inmates are prohibited from discussing a deputy's record of using force or the number and nature of complaints against him.
Referring to the Maricopa County case, Winter says, “We've had nothing like the problems in getting the statistical information that we're having in L.A. County.”
In response to a public records request from the Weekly, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department revealed that between 2005 and 2010, there were 5,977 use-of-force incidents in all of the county's jails. Men's Central Jail was home to 1,958 of those incidents.
Lt. Mark McCorkle, charged with supervising the county's jails, says that in most cases the use of force is found to have been justified and that no criminal act or internal-policy violation occurred. After reviewing the above statistics, he points out that the number of incidents overall has declined recently throughout the county jails — from 1,051 in 2009 to 708 in 2010.
By refusing to release specific details about those cases in L.A., however, the Sheriff's Department makes it impossible for the public to determine the extent of the abuse problem in its jails. Absent those details, the sole source of information about the jails comes from the ACLU, which is limited to documenting claims of abuse and adding them to a thick federal court case file. The organization has no power to investigate.
Somewhat surprising, perhaps, is that critics of the jail and Sheriff Lee Baca have found one fact to agree upon: Men's Central Jail is unsupervisable and should be shuttered.
Given the county's current budget crisis, however, Baca says there's no money to build a new jail. So despite the troubling conditions and rising tide of inmates complaining to the ACLU about being beaten and treated poorly, life at Men's Central Jail marches on, one allegation of abuse at a time.
Located just east of Chinatown, about a mile from downtown, Men's Central Jail is a testament to hulking, early 1960s jail construction. At nearly 1 million square feet, with a current average of about 4,000 inmates housed there daily, the building has a massive, daunting exterior. Its interior, however, is medieval.
Many of the floors are made up of long corridors lined with cells, making it impossible to see into any one cell without standing directly in front of it. From a supervision standpoint, Men's Central Jail is a nightmare.
Baca and the ACLU blame the layout of Men's Central Jail, in part, for the difficulties overseeing abusive jailers.
“The way the cells are lined up and the way they crowd people in there, Central Jail looks like the hulls in slave ships or the bunks in Dachau,” Eliasberg says. “They're in rows and rows of cells, and to think you can monitor and run something like that safely is insane.”
For many years, the county's Office of Independent Review and the ACLU have advocated placing cameras throughout the jail to document what occurs. “There are times when deputies are not being held accountable because we can't reach the level of proof we need to go forward,” says Michael Gennaco, chief attorney in the Office of Independent Review, which reviews force incidents and Baca's disciplinary decisions. “Cameras tend to be tiebreakers.”
Some cameras do exist; however, Gennaco says many of the ones in Men's Central Jail are outdated and don't work well.
Eliasberg says the technology for camera surveillance in jails has existed since the 1980s, yet L.A. County has dragged its feet. “The county says it has no money for cameras, yet they have hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay out lawsuit settlements,” he says. In response to a public information request from the Weekly, Los Angeles County says it has paid out only $738,850 from 2008 through 2010 to settle lawsuits alleging abuse by jail deputies.
“We've got to start aggressively pursuing getting cameras in there,” says Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for Baca. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors recently approved $7.2 million in one-time funding for closed-circuit television monitoring. But for it to be effective, even the Sheriff's Department concedes there needs to be a camera aimed down each hallway — and into nearly every one of the 2,825 cells.
Without those cameras, inmates — and the ACLU — are in a position of weakness. “After a beating, deputies often claim that the prisoners were the attackers, even though many were handcuffed … cowering from incoming blows,” the ACLU wrote in a report.
Carrillo, the laborer who was beaten while visiting his brother, says he was handcuffed during the entire beating and that the officers were trying to teach him a lesson for his smart-aleck remarks.
The deputies, however, state in their reports that Carrillo was not in cuffs and fought wildly, punching and kicking officers as they tried to book him for illegally possessing a phone. They claim the use of force was necessary to subdue him.
After the incident, Carrillo was charged with battery on a custodial officer, resisting an executive official and attempted escape during lawful detention.
“When I read the police report,” Carrillo says, “I was blown away how they created such a convenient story for themselves.”
Nearly all of those making allegations of abuse at Men's Central Jail face the same fundamental problem as Carrillo: It's their word versus the cops', and the cops rarely lose.
The ACLU's Eliasberg says, “At best you get witness corroboration from other inmates, but by and large it's almost always the inmate against a number of deputies, and juries are very sympathetic to officers.”
On Jan. 24 of this year, the current ACLU jail monitor, Esther Lim, reported that she saw a pair of deputies savagely beat inmate James Parker at the county's Twin Towers jail, next door to Men's Central Jail. In a federal court declaration, Lim said the officers continued to beat Parker even though he seemed unconscious and was not fighting back. Parker “looked like a mannequin that was being used as a punching bag,” she said.
The sheriff's log, according to news reports, said Parker attacked the deputies and would not stop until he was hit with a stun gun.
Lim, who is relatively new to her job, had never personally filed a declaration against the Sheriff's Department, Eliasberg says. After she did so, the department fired back. Instead of treating Lim as a witness to a potential crime, Sheriff's Department spokesman Whitmore questioned Lim, asking in a widely distributed Associated Press report why she waited several weeks to file a declaration in court and did not report the abuse right away.
Eliasberg has said Lim did not report the abuse immediately because she was scared and because more than a dozen other incidents of abuse reported by the ACLU in the last year had gone nowhere at the department.
Shortly after the Parker incident, the ACLU asked Daniel Richman, a Columbia University law professor and former federal prosecutor, to comment on Whitmore's remarks. Richman issued a stern statement, saying, “It is odd, and indeed troubling, when a law enforcement spokesman publicly disparages the credibility of a potential prosecution witness.”
Whitmore has said that both Internal Affairs and the Office of Independent Review are examining the case, and Eliasberg says he has asked the U.S. Attorney's Office to investigate and is optimistic that the feds are looking into it.
Winter, of the ACLU's National Prison Project, says she recently took an informal survey of prison litigators across the country and discovered that most are aware of incidents similar to what Lim witnessed, “in that the inmate claimed they were subjected to a severe beating while the jailers were calling out to an unresisting inmate, 'Stop resisting, stop resisting,' using the typical script as a cue that the victim will be made the criminal.
“What was unique, which no one around the country had ever heard of, was the boldness and brazenness for an attack like this to happen in essentially a public area of the jail,” Winter says. “I think this clearly indicates that the violence has been so deeply rooted and has for so long been accepted by the top brass that there's no sense of shame or fear of being punished. There is a boldness that is breathtaking here and that doesn't exist anywhere else.”
The ACLU began its journey toward eradicating cruel and unusual punishment from the L.A. County jails in 1975, when it sued the county and the sheriff in federal court. The county lost, reforms were made and conditions slowly began to improve. But when jail populations started to explode in the 1980s, those improvements vanished, and conditions went south. In 1985, the county agreed to allow an ACLU member inside the jails to monitor conditions as a compromise and alternative to the ACLU hauling the county back into court for contempt.
Now, more than 25 years later, the ACLU says its Prison Project team receives an average of 4,500 inmate complaints a year, on issues that include violence, retaliation, mental health care and unsanitary conditions. From March through August of 2010, the ACLU fielded more than 70 complaints about excessive force or retaliation by deputies from inmates inside Men's Central Jail. The organization has received hundreds of like complaints over the past two years from inmates at the jail. The ongoing federal court case file is bursting with declarations from inmates telling stories of bone-rattling abuse.
“I don't even want to talk about how long this has been going on,” Eliasberg says. “It's mind-boggling. And there's a level of frustration that you report this stuff over and over, and the county and sheriff's response is always, 'We've looked into it, it's not true, prisoners lie.' It's hard to get a hold on all of the violence because it's he said, he said, and it generally happens without people seeing it.”
The incident with Whitmore and Lim was just the latest chapter in the contentious, often frosty relationship between the ACLU and the Sheriff's Department.
When asked about the ACLU, Whitmore says, “The sheriff supports the ACLU in spirit — we just have a problem with their exaggerations and overstatements.”
As for how the ACLU perceives the Sheriff's Department, Eliasberg says: “We've made a number of efforts over the years to try to figure out ways to close MCJ and make improvements for the benefit of both the inmates and the guards. I can't say every single suggestion we've made has been rejected, but we've made a huge number that nothing has happened on.”
Last summer, for example, the ACLU came up with an idea to reduce the inmate population just enough to close Men's Central Jail — which Baca agrees needs to be done — without having to build a new one.
The ACLU offered to pay Dr. James Austin, a national expert on prisons and overcrowding, to examine the inmate population to see if there were ways to thin the herd. Austin crunches the numbers to find ways to reclassify inmates, potentially allowing them to be put on monitored release or in lower-security areas. Among his successes, Austin was able to reduce the prison population in Mississippi and save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
“Jim was able to help us reduce our maximum-security population from 2,000 to 200 and save us a whole ton of money,” says Christopher Epps, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. “We also were able to close a 1,000-bed facility. I'm glad we paid Jim to help us — and if it was free, we definitely would have jumped on it.”
Austin's proposal for L.A. County called for analyzing Men's Central Jail inmate information, which the Sheriff's Department told him was easily accessible, and 90 days later issuing a report with recommendations. The work wouldn't cost Los Angeles County a penny because it would be financed by the ACLU.
At first, the sheriff refused, Eliasberg says. Baca and the county counsel's office then said it would give Austin the data but only if it was placed under a court seal, meaning the information could never be made public. Austin also could not disclose his findings about ways to reduce the inmate population and close down Men's Central Jail.
“We said, 'So if Austin does a report saying the facility could be emptied out and the sheriff is holding people he doesn't need to, we can't make that public?' ” says Eliasberg. “It would be like the report didn't exist. So in the end, they refused to allow the best expert in the country to come in.”
None of the five county supervisors returned L.A. Weekly's request for comment, but Supervisor Michael Antonovich's justice deputy, Anna Pembedjian, says she has never heard of the Austin proposal. Whitmore says the same.
However, Assistant County Counsel Roger Granbo has heard about Austin's idea. Granbo says the consensus from the county's side was that Austin's report was not necessary. Granbo says that while the ACLU “wanted to use it as a public document, that really was not something we were interested in.”
This lack of transparency has long been a sticking point with critics of the jail. Complaints against individual deputies, discipline records and investigative reports that would reveal how internal investigations are conducted are not publicly available and are accessible to attorneys only under a protective seal.
The ACLU complains that Baca refuses to share the annual number of complaints received through the jail's inmate grievance system, which processes thousands more complaints a year than the ACLU receives, or the nature of the complaints or the resolutions reached.
“The [sheriff] has, for years, refused to disclose … how it reviews use-of-force incidents [or] what criteria it uses to assess the 'reasonableness' of the force used,” states an ACLU report. “This lack of transparency and accountability may only serve to reinforce a culture within LASD that allows abuse of prisoners to go relatively unchecked since, in the end, there is apparently no independent source for weighing the prisoner's word against the deputy's.”
In essence, critics conclude, Baca keeps reams of meaningful data to himself and asks the public to trust his word that the world's biggest jail is really not that bad.
Whitmore acknowledges the problem but says the county's hands are tied.
“There are various things that have nothing to do with the Sheriff's Department,” he says. “Personnel records are private, and the Peace Officers Bill of Rights prevents the sheriff from releasing deputy names. I don't know how you'd get around that.”
The Office of Independent Review was designed to shed light on how the Sheriff's Department operates. But according to Gennaco's 2004 contract with the county, as head of that office, Gennaco has an attorney-client relationship with the county and the sheriff, unlike the inspector general for LAPD. This means that what Gennaco sees, says and does in his investigations is confidential, the same as if Gennaco were Baca's lawyer. Gennaco cannot testify in court, for example, about any of his work.
Attorney Sonia Mercado, who lost a bid in court to get Gennaco to testify about an Office of Independent Review investigation, says, “As a lawyer, your duty and solemn obligation is to your client and to not do or say anything contrary to your client's best interests. If the OIR is Baca's attorney, we must stop calling it the Office of Independent Review. It taints itself to be so closely associated with the group it is supposed to be investigating.”
Gennaco disagrees, arguing that the privilege allows his office access to otherwise confidential documents, such as Internal Affairs reports, critical to overseeing Sheriff's Department investigations.
“To me, it's a bunch of junk,” Gennaco says. “The privilege provides us access, but it's never been used to try and influence what we do. I think the trade-off is important to have that access, and I think the civil lawyers are mad because we won't help them with their lawsuits against the sheriff.”
Addressing the question of transparency, Gennaco wrote a letter to the ACLU and the county supervisors, stating: “Our work over the past eight years has provided more transparency regarding the internal investigative processes and discipline of LASD than any other sheriff's department in the country. In our view, it is in no one's best interest to keep these processes in the dark.”
To back up his claim, Gennaco points to his office's public reports, which provide information concerning all Internal Affairs investigations, the outcome of the investigation and an assessment as to whether the investigation was adequate.
“You won't find another law enforcement agency in the country that does that,” Gennaco says, with the exception of the California corrections department and the Orange County Sheriff's Department, whose processes were based on Gennaco's recommendations.
Yet Gennaco acknowledges that his office does not conduct independent investigations into every use-of-force incident. During a 2005 court hearing, Gennaco's attorney, Jennifer Gysler, said the Office of Independent Review does not “investigate the event itself.” Instead, Gysler says in court papers, describing Gennaco's actual work: “They review what was done by the Sheriff's investigators … [and] look at the investigation that was done through a legal prism” to make sure “it complied with the law.”
Gennaco says that if an inmate kills himself or is murdered, he or his colleagues go to the crime scene to make sure sheriff's investigators are asking the right questions. But, he says, in cases where nobody dies, which make up the majority of the jail's roughly 80 abuse allegations that Gennaco's office reviews each year, his office conducts a review of the sheriff's investigation file.
If a witness is intimidated not to talk, or if a witness is never interviewed by the Sheriff's detectives, the Office of Independent Review might never know it. Eliasberg says the office's work therefore can only be as good as the investigations it is reviewing.
“We would need 40 times the people we have right now to do our own investigations,” Gennaco says. However, “You are right that when we're not on the scene there may be a time when something might slip by.”
Even Baca's spokesman, Whitmore, says, “The OIR doesn't have its own investigators, and I've always thought that it probably should.”
In February, on the day Gabriel Carrillo was injured by several officers in Men's Central Jail, a sheriff's deputy escorted his girlfriend, Grace Torres, out of the little break room near the visitors' lobby, and seated her near a group of deputies. Ten or so minutes later, she saw officers walking out of the break room with blood on their uniforms.
Torres says she heard someone instructing the deputies who had been in the room with Carrillo to clean themselves up. Then, she says, she heard one of them say, “Should I say my rib or jaw hurts?”
Torres wheeled around. “Really?” she asked.
The officers then stopped for a moment, Torres says, and began whispering.
An hour later, Torres says, a deputy approached her and said he was going to interview her and that “Whether we let you go depends on what you say” — a threat to pursue charges against her for having a cellphone in her shoe.
The officer explained to Torres that her boyfriend's brother, who was in jail, had gotten into a physical confrontation with police the day he'd been arrested. The deputy wanted Torres to say in a recorded statement that her boyfriend was mad when he arrived at the visitors' area to see his brother.
“I told the deputy, 'No, he was not upset or mad,' ” Torres says. “Then they turned off the recorder and said I'm not cooperating and that they can add charges to Gabriel — and that I could go to jail.”
Next, the officer handed Torres a sheet of paper to write a statement.
“They said they need me to write in my own words that my boyfriend was upset because the cops beat up his brother,” Torres says. “When I would try to add anything, they'd take it away and tell me what to write.”
According to Torres' written statement in Gabriel Carrillo's case file, she wrote, “He was mad at the sheriff for beating up his younger brother.”
Carrillo's defense attorney, Jack Stennett, says he isn't surprised by any of the deputies' alleged tactics or the charges against his client.
“I've done a number of these cases,” he says, “and one officer lies and the other officer swears to it. You've got the thick blue line and it's the same old game as planting a gun on someone. It's a farce.” [Ed. note: Carrillo this week changed attorneys, hiring Ron Kaye.]
Carrillo says the deputies overreacted to his smart-ass comment and that he did nothing to deserve his battered, blackened face and a trip to the hospital. He has no plans to accept a plea deal from the district attorney, who is prosecuting him on the basis of the deputies' claims that Carrillo attacked them.
“I know it's an uphill battle,” he says, “but this is wrong and needs to be fought.”