Deaths in LA County Jails

Letter from Troy Vaughn

It is with a heavy heart that we reflect on the many Angelenos who have died in LA County jails already this year, most before they were convicted or sentenced for a crime. As Vera Institute's Michelle Paris shared in her August 4th LAT Oped on this tragedy, "Most of the dead were Black or Latino, had not been convicted of the charges for which they were being held and were in custody only because they were too poor to pay the bail amount for their release."

While raw numbers don’t nearly represent the individual lives and their family and loved ones who are also impacted, we share that thirty people have died in our jails so far this year, nearly one person every week. Some of the deaths have occurred at Twin Towers Correctional Facility, which holds the dubious honor of being America’s largest mental health institution. Others were at Men’s Central Jail, a decrepit aging facility which the County had promised to close more than three years ago. Given the pretrial nature of so many of these deaths, one must beg the question, is this the best option we have to deal with this crisis?

Each of these deaths is part of a larger crisis of violence, filth and disorder that has come to define Los Angeles jails, which overwhelmingly lock up the poor, the homeless, and people of color. More than 6,700 people are awaiting trial in these facilities right now, simply because they are too poor to pay bail and return to their homes, jobs, and loved ones.

I have witnessed the flaws and deficiencies of our criminal justice system myself, from both sides of the coin. Decades ago I too rotated between homelessness on skid row and the LA jails. And today as the executive director of LARRP, and the CEO of the LA Mission, I work to connect some of our most high risk residents to essential services, like housing, health care, and employment. Our county's approach to incarceration too often fosters deadly violence, neglect, and dehumanization instead of rehabilitation. I know there is a better approach, because I see every day how the services community-based organizations like mine provide—behavioral health treatment, case management, and supportive housing—promote safety and change the trajectory of people’s lives for the better.

We build genuine, lasting relationships with clients being released from jail. Many of us are formerly incarcerated ourselves, and know what it takes to help someone get back on their feet. We connect clients to treatment, if needed, and encourage them to stay engaged. We help them return for court dates. And, because we develop networks across our neighborhoods, we often secure pillars of stability like job opportunities, housing, or support reunifying with family. Service providers are vital to turning the tide on homelessness, jail deaths, overdose deaths, and the harmful cycles of incarceration in our county.

The emphasis on building diversionary beds to get pre-trial folks out of criminal custody is a step we have long pursued. A few years ago, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors stated their commitment to offering care as a first matter to people in crisis, and using jail as a last resort—getting people out of our jails and back home with the support they need to succeed. But, as detailed in a report this month from the Vera Institute of Justice, the people and organizations in the community who are tasked with providing this critical care now face a workforce shortage, escalated by low pay and difficult contracting processes, that threatens to make the “care first” vision impossible.

To sustain this work, Los Angeles County needs to support smaller, grassroots organizations which have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to serving the formerly incarcerated, diversifying our community-based system of care. These groups are often based in the communities most impacted by incarceration—resourcing them would help remedy long-standing geographical disparities in access to services. That way, no matter where in the county someone is released, a provider can be there as a safety net.

To do this, the county must do what so many people over the years have recommended: reform its contracting processes. The Justice, Care, and Opportunities Department (JCOD), a new county agency intended to serve justice-impacted people and house pretrial services, must continue to develop its programs and keep seeking input from those who have lived through the system and the organizations that serve them. The status quo—massive insurance requirements, lengthy reimbursement processes, and convoluted reporting obligations—favors larger entities and leaves smaller organizations with limited resources and little opportunity to compete.

JCOD staff, the county CEO, and the Board of Supervisors can help our communities access essential services by reserving a portion of contracts for grassroots organizations, streamlining application procedures, and providing technical assistance to help smaller organizations navigate county processes. The pace of improvements so far fails to reflect the urgency of the issue, and without action our organizations will continue to disappear, further widening the gaps in our communities. LARRP is prepared to help support this evolving work by assisting in capacity building efforts and standing alongside the county to help guide improvement.

We cannot let bureaucracy get in the way as deaths continue to mount in our overcrowded jails. We must build bridges between impacted communities, grassroots organizations, larger service institutions, and the county to address the root causes of contact with the criminal justice system, promote healing within our communities, and realize the “care first” vision.