Black hole in the jail system leaves thousands of prisoners to languish

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The Independent US

Getting into the Los Angeles county jail system is easy.

Getting into the Los Angeles county jail system is easy. Come under suspicion of committing a semi-serious offence, as 200,000 people do each year, and the chances are you will spend time in the sprawling and grim Twin Towers building downtown or one of its equally unappetising sister establishments dotted around the metropolis.

Getting out, though, is a different matter. Even if you have served your time, or secured a release order from a judge, there is no guarantee you will be released.

For the past five years, about 40 per cent of county inmates have been held past their release date. Some are left waiting for a few days, others for months. Roughly half, county officials concede, have been subjected to illegal strip searches and other indignities. The reason? The system has simply "lost" them, or assigned them incorrect paperwork. There has been a computer compatibility problem between courthouse and jailhouse, not to mention a large dose of human incompetence. Cases include:

* A woman ordered to spend the night in jail to guarantee her availability to testify in a criminal trial who was accidentally shipped back to her cell and held for another 36 hours. Although she was not suspected of a crime, she was shackled and strip-searched, her complaint alleged;

* A man held for more than a month even after police decided not to press assault charges, because the jail computer system assigned him the wrong booking number. The man, who is HIV-positive, said in his complaint he was denied access to medicines;

* A man ordered to serve four concurrent 150-day sentences for a hit-and-run driving episode who ended up in jail for an extra nine months because his jailers thought "concurrent" meant "consecutive".

This spectacular black hole at the heart of the county jail system has become the latest cause for scandal in a city already notorious for its heavy-handed approach to law enforcement. The lawsuits have begun to fly in earnest, and last month Los Angeles County agreed to settle five separate class-action lawsuits for $27m (£18m). It was one of the highest payouts in the county's history, according to the plaintiffs' lawyers, but a drop in the ocean considering it will be shared by as many as 400,000 people.

Now, urgent questions are being asked about how much the county authorities knew of the calamity, when they knew it, and what, if anything, they chose to do.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times last week, the county spent more than $1m fighting the lawsuits before actually ordering any action to correct the problem.

Lee Baca, the county sheriff, said: "My only weak excuse, which isn't much of an excuse at all, is the legal process was in effect and there were points made to me that, hey, we're doing all right with this case." Having taken office in 1999, Mr Baca is not blamed for creating the mess, but he may yet be criticised for failing to sort it out fast enough.

An updated computer system is now on order, and many inmates released by a judge are now freed directly at the courthouse. The number of overstays has at last begun to drop sharply.

Part of the mess is a consequence of the sheer size and chaotic nature of the LA county jail system, the biggest in the country. The inmate population on any given night is about 21,000, of whom more than 3,000 have some sort of diagnosed mental illness – making it the largest de facto mental institution in America.

But the problem is also widely blamed on Mr Baca's long-serving predecessor, the late Sherman Block, who showed little interest even after it was revealed in newspapers and in reports by his own investigators. The phenomenon only came to light, in fact, because of complaints that faulty paperwork was causing a handful of detainees to be released too soon.

Sheriff Block quickly took action to cut the number of accidental early releases from 30-odd cases a year to about 12. But he did nothing to reduce the much higher annual number of people – about 80,000 – held too long.