I (once) helped a colleague collect data for his master’s in criminology; he was studying the data that the penal system in South Carolina collected on the inmates at the State Prison in Columbia–namely the “Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Profile . . .”

. . . South Carolina also administered the tests to guards and furthermore stored the data in the same (non-computer) files.

. . . Naturally we did the obvious, we compared the guards to the prisoners …

. . . What came out of that comparison was truly eye-opening. Statistically significant (something like the 95 percentile level) the guards and prisoners were indistinguishable.

I always thought that what it meant was that the same type personality were in both types. The guards were able to channel their “personalities” into a legally recognized and approved channel. The prisoners didn’t and hence became prisoners.
–Mike Junker, an academic, circa 1961

Employment in a detention facility presents unique problems markedly different even from those confronting professionals in other areas of law enforcement. In addition to the problems of burnout, stress-related health problems, and high turnover rates plaguing other peace officers, custodial work in incarceration environs often brings out issues of identity confusion.

These, and other troubles associated with prisoners caught up in the trauma of incarceration, suggest that guards can easily adopt the behaviors of the offenders under their care. The above episode, along with the well-known 1971 Stanford University prison experiment in which students adopted the roles of guards and prisoners in a mock prison research test offer at least a partial explanation of the misdeeds that have recently surfaced in the jails under the stewardship of Sheriff Lee Baca.

On Jan. 24, 2011, Esther Lim was seated in a cubicle in the attorney’s section at the Twin Towers visitor’s area. Then recently hired by the American Civil Liberties Union as a monitor to cover the treatment of prisoners throughout the county jail system, she’d been to the facility several times, and was using the telephone to interview her present client, Christopher Brown, who was holding a duplicate telephone receiver as he faced her on the other side of a clear partition. They were interrupted at about 5:30 p.m. by the sounds of an altercation.

Both monitor and prisoner stood up, and from their vantage point they could see through two large windows cut into the wall that separates what is called “the staging area” from the visiting area two deputies standing over a prone inmate. He was later identified as James Parker, and he lay on the floor of the staging area, which is used for recreation and other activities. Lim and Brown could observe the deputies punch, knee, and finally use a “Taser” electroshock incapacitation device on the apparently unresistant Parker, who made no effort to defend himself, and, according to Lim, appeared to be unconscious.

In the following days, Lim was presented with correctional facility logs that she claims falsified the events she witnessed, and presented Parker as being aggressive and belligerent towards the deputies. (Lim’s official sworn statement, along with the ACLU’s lawsuit, may be seen at www.aclu.org/).

This episode is merely one of several occurrences of maltreatment reported within the Los Angeles County Jail system. Especially notorious are accounts conveyed from the Men’s Central Jail, often referred to as “MCJ” or “CJ,” which houses 5,000 of the estimated 18,000 to 19,000 inmates in this, the world’s largest jail complex.

Completed in 1963, it is not as antique as other municipal buildings in the county, and has not reached the mythical status of say, Manhattan’s Detention Complex (parts of which date back to 1941, and is colloquially known as “The Tombs”), but MCJ has cultivated its own formidable reputation over the years, because it has been home to on-going gang warfare reflecting the county’s gang rivalry out on the streets. Recently, however, the numbers of violent incidents seem to have reached a point of “critical–mass” where they’ve attracted the attention of individuals and groups outside the corrections and law-enforcement community.

In January 2012, one of those interested entities, the ACLU, filed a 77-page lawsuit against Sheriff Lee Baca and other high-ranking officials, charging that they allowed a culture of violence to flourish in which compliant inmates were regularly beaten, and deputies formed gang-like social groups to carry out this brutality against prisoners and even other deputies crossing their paths.

The lawsuit: outsider testimony

The episodes of violence cited read like the plot outline of a pulp-fiction novel:

–Inmates beaten with seemingly no provocation in full view of outside parties not directly associated with the facility, including a prison chaplain (who later claimed he was threatened and labeled a “rat”) in 2009; Scott Budnick, a Hollywood producer of note voluntarily tutoring inmates within the jail, says he witnessed deputies slam a Black inmate’s head into a wall with no provocation in November 2008, and the previously mentioned January 2011 incident involving ACLU monitor Lim.

—Individual incidents spread out between 2009 and 2011 in which deputies singled out Black inmates for physical abuse on the basis of ethnicity, often accompanied by racial epithets. On one occasion, after fracturing an inmate’s jaw and knocking out one of his teeth, jailers carved the letters “MY” into his scalp, those being the first two letters of the word “myate,” a slang word used by Hispanics to insult African Americans.

–Accusations that jailers also targeted mentally ill inmates, a charge that was substantiated by an inter-department report. Other allegations have deputies singling these inmates out for physical violence and harassment, sometimes of a sexual nature.

–Allegations that corrupt jailers enabled the facilitation of an open-air drug market, confirmed by a Feb. 23, 2010, episode where a deputy was implicated in a plot to smuggle heroin hidden in a burrito into jail.

–An undercover “sting” orchestrated by the FBI, wherein that federal entity paid a deputy $1,500 to successfully smuggle a cell phone into the facility for an inmate working as a government informant.

–A physical altercation during October 2011 between off-duty female deputies at La Mirada’s Regional Park, which escalated into a gunfight.

–Numerous allegations of gang-like behavior exhibited by a rogue cadre of deputies working on the Central Jail’s third floor, or “3000 block,” under the name “the 3000 Boys.” Among the accusations: assaults on inmates and fellow deputies alike; adoption of customs and patterns associated with gang-like allegiance, including sporting tattoos, displaying gang signs, engaging in fascist-influenced group violence outside the workplace, including two documented incidents at a 2010 department-sanctioned Christmas party in a Montebello banquet hall where deputies were beaten by their colleagues in the establishment parking lot as two captains watched.

–There was also a 2010 incident caught on surveillance tape where an off-duty deputy provoked a fight with a bouncer at an Orange County nightclub.

“You couldn’t count the problems with that jail,” says Peter Eliasberg of the ACLU. He and the ACLU are, for the time being, focusing on the rampant violence that seems to be a given within its present culture.

Eliasberg dismisses Baca’s long-standing pledge to bring a humanist approach to incarceration, and claims he and the ACLU have long asked the department to provide statistics and other data to validate improvements

“There’s a big difference between talk and reality,” Eliasberg declares.

Baca’s management style

We have eliminated most of the negative aspects of bureaucracy. I manage from the middle down.

–From a statement by Lee Baca on the sheriff’s department website

These claims are all the more curious, as they come under the watch of Sheriff Lee Baca, whose reputation as a progressive reformer has drawn the ire of high-ranking colleagues within law enforcement. Police traditionalists have whined about his ties to Scientology, efforts to bond with the Islamic community, liberal attitude towards medical marijuana, and reluctance to embrace the time-honored clichés of being tough on crime.

Closer to home, Baca’s humanist approach has garnered him a sizable congregation of supporters from areas of Los Angeles County noted for strained relations with law enforcement, as well as prominent critics of police abuse.

As a product of Watts’ Jordan Downs housing project, Aquella Sherills was a captive observer of the dynamics of interactions between South Los Angeles and the law-enforcement community. An epiphany in the form of personal tragedy in 1988 drew him from his studies at California State University, Northridge, back to the neighborhood and social activism. Alongside gridiron legend Jim Brown, he founded the Amer-I-Can organization and brokered the 1992 truce between the Bloods and Crips.

News of the surge of deputy impropriety came as no surprise to Sherrills because, as he puts it, he was aware that “the L.A. County jail is a violent place. It has been, and continues to be.”

Preliminary meetings with the Baca and other sheriff’s personnel specifically led to Amer-I-Can programs being established within the jail system. Sherrills was taken aback during one session when Baca freely acknowledged that his deputies were culpable for 75 percent of the problems experienced in the county jail.

In discussing the circumstances surrounding the scandal, Sherrills stressed the importance of realizing Baca’s precarious position, a situation rooted in the long-standing conflict between brass and beat cop within his department. An elected official, he must also contend with the considerable power of the union representing the peace officers under his command, an influence sure to manifest itself at election time.

Correcting a ‘beat down culture’

The existence of malfeasance saturating such a large agency begs comparison with the county’s other bastion of law and order, the Los Angeles Police Department. Among those who toiled to revamp that beleaguered force was civil rights attorney Connie Rice of the Advancement Project. When asked to compare the two county entities, she noted the obvious difference–LAPD Chief Charlie Beck was confirmed by City Council while Sheriff Baca is an elected official.

Since she won a lawsuit against The Vikings, a rogue deputy gang element in the Lynwood substation during the early 1990s, Rice has not been as intimately acquainted with the department under Baca’s stewardship as she is with the LAPD, having labored more than two decades to broker more amicable relations between the community and police. In the process, she has earned praise from Chief Charlie Beck, who has dubbed her “the conscience of the city.”

Regarding the sheriff and the jails, specifically, she maintains that changes have already been implemented in the form of replacing supervising personnel directly in charge of the rank and file. The real question, she believes, is whether the old culture of control through “beat downs” has been discarded for good. In the wake of the highly publicized Miramonte Elementary School abuse scandal, accused predator Mark Berndt has alleged through his public defender that he’s been targeted by correctional deputies for harassment, and been publicly identified by those charged with his welfare as a child molester to other inmates. They also allegedly revealed the location of his cell. Such behavior, if true, is a sign that the patterns identified by the ACLU have not been eradicated.

Correctional environments nurture cultural components unique unto themselves. Longtime activist and bail bondsman Celes King VI, however, views the problems in place at Central Jail as symptomatic of issues that are manifested across a wide variety of corporations and organizational units.

Organizational disconnect?

King’s overall critique of Baca’s tenure is positive. “I have never in my life seen a sheriff who’s allowed the transparency within the department, as well as addressing and solving problems with the assistance of other agencies and community input,” he said. The real problem, he suggests, might be that the message becomes garbled, distorted, or even ignored as it filters down from the sender (Baca) to the receiver (custodial deputies).

Within groups of any size, it is necessary to have different levels of delegation. Following this train of thought, King reasons, a correctional facility’s organizational structure is much like any other business.

Critical to the smooth performance of a particular concern is the ability (or willingness) of middle managers to convey the directives from the top brass to the rank and file, or those actually doing the work.

In this particular scenario, the custodial officers may have developed a “siege” mentality, and as seasoned veterans familiar with the inner workings of this specific facility, are adept at running “cover-up” programs that enable them to impede the dictates of their superiors while superficially appearing to carry out the job descriptions of the positions they hold.

This phenomenon, King argues, regularly occurs and may be seen in any business or corporation, and especially in paramilitary groups or law-enforcement associations. In this case, the problem might be exacerbated by Baca’s frequent trips across the country and even overseas, which shift his focus away from the department.

The culture will only be changed when the livelihoods of those responsible (it this case, middle management and those directly above them) are threatened to force them to implement that change, continues King.

Piggy-backing upon King’s theory, law-enforcement monitor Sandra Moore, Ph.D. vividly remembers a jail visit many years ago when a lieutenant bluntly said, “I don’t care what Baca says, He is not a front-line soldier. We are! We deal with these people every day while he sits up in his office being a politician.”

Incidents like this gave Moore a glimpse into the mindset that may have contributed to the mayhem that surfaced recently.

“You’ve got people who came up under (Sheriff) Sherman Block (Baca’s predecessor) who carry a very negative agenda,” she proposes. “They don’t see the inmates as human beings.

“They also have issues with minorities, especially African Americans, and have not embraced the core values set down by Sheriff Baca.”

“They have deliberately negated these values during the execution of their duties,” she concludes.

In summation:

However much I pity the prisoners, I think that spiritually their position is far preferable to that of their guards …

. . . I hope and believe that by far the greater number of the officers serving in our prisons are naturally honorable and kindly men, but so were the slave-owners before the Civil War . . .