The Real Lesson of the L.A. County Jail Scandal

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's recent guilty plea to lying to federal investigators about abuse in his jails provides a rare glimpse into America's correctional institutions, if one knows where to look. Baca's conviction -- and that of more than a dozen other Sheriff personnel -- isn't just an idiosyncratic tale of the demise of a lawman and his posse, but rather an example of how institutionalization systematically erodes the moral code of jail employees. That's why, in addition to watchdogging conditions of confinement, we need to bring about an end to mass incarceration.

My own experience running Washington, D.C.'s juvenile corrections agency gave me a front row seat to this phenomenon.

The juvenile justice agency I took over in our Nation's Capital in 2005 was a Dickensian nightmare, despite 19 years of court oversight. In the previous year, two scathing reports by the District's Inspector General and plaintiff's experts detailed appalling conditions in the department's facilities. Kids reported stuffing their clothing around the toilets to prevent rats and cockroaches from biting them at night. The boilers were so dysfunctional that youth who slept in rooms close to them experienced scalding heat, while those far away endured numbing cold. Young people were locked in their cells for so long that they often defecated or urinated in them. Drugs were so prevalent in the facility that some youth who came into custody clean tested positive for marijuana after 30 days. Beatings of children in custody were commonplace. The year before I arrived, things got so bad that the city went through four department heads and the youths' lawyers asked the court to place the entire department into receivership.

We later discovered that staff were also sexually harassing the kids and one another. New female staff learned that if they didn't perform sexually for their supervisors, they might find themselves in dangerous situations with the facility's inmates with no aid forthcoming. A teacher who had been confined in our facility when she was a teenager told us that she had been sexually assaulted by a staff member who still worked for us. One correctional officer actually married a youth shortly after his release from custody.

Cleaning this up was no mean feat. The story of one staff member -- allegedly part of a goon squad that routinely beat up recalcitrant youth -- is illustrative. Robert (not his real name) was accused of savagely beating two residents in front of dozens of youth and staff. To compound the humiliation, the youth were handcuffed and dragged through a mud puddle. Medical staff reported that the boys' bruising was consistent with their account of abuse. A single correctional officer came forward as a witness. a rarity due to the strong correctional staff taboo against "snitching".

After moving to terminate Robert, we arrived at binding arbitration after nearly a year of due process. By that point, the two youth were extraordinarily reluctant witnesses; delinquent youth don't carry that much weight with some arbitrators anyway. The medical staff's testimony was solid, but they hadn't actually seen who administered the beating.

The lone correctional officer witness had been so harassed by his co-workers that we had to move him several times that year out of concern about reprisals. His testimony was shaky and deemed not credible. Meanwhile, several staff came forward to attest to Robert's character. We lost, and had to settle with Robert so that he no longer had contact with kids.

During the process of disciplining staff for this widespread misconduct, several disturbing patterns arose. Staff publicly opposed my leadership, passing numerous votes of no confidence and testifying before a D.C. Council responsive to both the potential legitimacy of their concerns and the reelection clout they represented.

Staff also leaked exaggerated stories to the court oversight monitor (who generally saw through them as transparent attempts to discredit me) and to the media (who often didn't). So, a routine fight became a "riot", a youth being temporarily out of bounds within the facility became an "escape", etc.

Of greater concern, staff began to engage in outright sabotage. Staff appeared complicit in the two escapes that occurred during my 5-year tenure. In the first, a staff member allowed the youth to use his cell phone to arrange for a post-escape ride. In the second, staff stood idly by as a group of youth spent hours loudly breaking through an escape-resistant window.

As these incidents piled up, I received commiseration from prior directors and system watchers about the department's historic sabotage and code of silence. One reform-minded predecessor had had cocaine planted in his trunk. Staff left a truck running inside the facility for the youth to simply drive through the front gate. Maintenance staff left bolt cutters leaning up against the facility's fence; the youth merely cut the chain link and walked out.

Such incidents often generated negative media coverage (usually aided by staff calls to sympathetic reporters), contributing to turnover at the top. When I was appointed, I was the 20th director in the 19-year history of the court consent decree. Recalcitrant staff used a well-worn path to rid themselves of pesky, crusading department heads.

It's small wonder that Baca and some of his staff would conceal, rather than confront, institutional abuses. The other path -- overcoming the status quo against fierce staff resistance -- is a steep uphill climb.

Eventually, with Mayor Adrian Fenty's support, I was able to stick around long enough to substantially reduce the facility's population, increase community programs, and install a 60-bed-facility in place of the archaic 208-bed youth prison. Many hard liners left, either because they were fired, disciplined, or just disagreed with our rehabilitative approach. The rest were intensively trained and coached in more constructive ways of working with young people.

These experiences made it clear that it is the rule, rather than the exception, for jails, prisons and juvenile facilities to entropy into bureaucratized, abusive places. Too often, the public views correctional atrocities as isolated to highly publicized wrong-doers, erroneously concluding that, when this administrator or that staff member is dismissed, the problem will be solved.

To be sure, anyone engaged in inmate abuse deserves to be held accountable, although they rarely are. But there's also a body of literature on the essential nature of what Erving Goffman has called "total institutions" revealing that depersonalization is endemic to institutionalization.

In 1971, Stanford University researcher Phillip Zimbardo randomly assigned normal students to prisoner and guard roles in a mock jail to examine how their role definition would impact their behavior. In less than a week "guards" were humiliating and psychologically torturing their "inmate" fellow students. Zimbardo was so seduced by the role of benign warden that he turned a blind eye to what was happening until a graduate student persuaded him to end the experiment early.

Incidents of this sort are hardly rare in America's correctional facilities, while the ability to dismiss abusive guards is. A quick look at the U.S. Justice Department, Civil Rights Division's web site reveals scores of hair-raising investigations and law suits filed by the federal government against state and county correctional facilities- including suits against LA County's jails and juvenile probation camps. Inmates themselves file over 20,000 federal suits annually against the nation's jailers.

The Marshall Project gathered data on correctional officer discipline after a series of allegations of inmate abuse by guards in New York State. Eighty cases were settled short of dismissal and, of the 30 that went through the system's arcane arbitration process, only eight resulted in dismissal.

These atrocities are hardly meted out equally. African Americans and Latinos are incarcerated in the U.S. at far higher rates than whites. In Los Angeles, whites are represented in jail at about half their representation in the county's population (15% vs. 27%), while African Americans are represented in jail at more than three times their representation in the general public (31% vs. 9%). In my five years running the D.C. system, I never saw one white youth (other than volunteers) in my correctional facility.

Despite my experiences, I actually liked many of my staff more that I would have ever expected. I charged into my job with an air of moral superiority. Surely, I thought, such conditions could only be created by ethically bankrupt characters who would wear their depravity on their sleeves.

But things in the real world were far more complicated than I originally believed. It was obvious that just about everyone in my facility knew who was beating up the kids, sexually assaulting them and selling them drugs. After all, the facility only housed about 200 young people, roughly the size of a small middle school. Even in a system as large as the L.A.'s, I'm confident that far more people knew of, and participated in, the abuses and cover up than will ever be held to account.

Yet many of my church-going, hail-fellow-well-met staff were ostensibly quite friendly people who believed they were advancing public safety. They were the good guys - attending football games and plays and cheering the youth on alongside their parents. You'd never dream that most of them would knowingly allow a grown man to brutally beat children or sell them drugs.

Yet, there they were, doing just that.

Cognitive dissonance had set in so deeply that they could ignore -- or personally engage in -- these atrocities, rationalizing that they were good people, partially by demonizing the kids as deserving of abuse. That's why, when we asked who was abusing the youth, we were met with stony silence.

When prison guards are depicted in popular movies, they too often seem like obvious sadists. After my experience, I much prefer the complicated Caputo in Orange is the New Black to the stereotypically obsessive Javert in Les Miserables.

Of course, none of this happens without our acquiescence, permission or, sometimes, full-throated support. As Elie Wiesel put it "The opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference." My facility reeked of indifference, not just from staff, but from the general citizenry.

There are signs the tide is beginning to turn, with calls from the left and right to end mass incarceration; sharp declines in juvenile incarceration; modest reductions in prison populations; and crime continuing to drop. For my money, the end of mass incarceration can't come soon enough, it's not only ineffective and wasteful, but it poisons staff and prisoners alike.