42 People Have Died in LA County Jails This Year

Another person has died in Los Angeles County jails, bringing the total number of deaths of people in the system’s custody to 42 this year—an average of almost one death every week.

That staggering number far exceeds that of New York City Department of Correction (NYC DOC) facilities, where the rising number of deaths at the Rikers Island jail complex has led to a mounting crisis that has received nationwide attention.

The death toll in LA jails—the nation’s largest jail system—is driven by severe overcrowding, inadequate care inside jails, and a failure to offer robust alternatives to incarceration. A horrifying video smuggled out of Men’s Central Jail in June, which shows jail staff neglecting to intervene in a violent assault that stretched for more than ten minutes, underscores the urgent need to reduce the jail population and expand community-based alternatives to incarceration.

“Our jails are killing people—disproportionately Black and Latino men who are held pretrial—because the county has crammed the facilities beyond capacity,” said Michelle Parris, program director of Vera California. “Jail has become the county’s default response to poverty, houselessness, and other unmet needs. Our communities would be safer if we address the root causes of instability by investing in community-based alternatives to incarceration that are proven to work, and that do not result in a new death every week.”

What’s killing people in LA County jails?

Overcrowded facilities are the most significant single factor driving jail deaths in Los Angeles. The jail system has operated at as high as 16 percent over capacity this year. This means that not only are the facilities physically crowded, but resources are also being stretched beyond their breaking point.

The issues begin in intake, where newly incarcerated people are processed. People who have passed through the intake facilities have described them as “a living hell,” where people are left to sleep without bedding or blankets on floors covered in garbage and waste.

Beyond the squalid and cramped conditions, overcrowded jails also limit access to resources, especially medical care. Incarcerated people requesting medical care say they have faced cruel or indifferent treatment from jail staff. In particular, Los Angeles County jails provide horrendous standards of mental health care—despite being the largest provider of mental health care in the United States, with 42 percent of people currently detained there diagnosed with mental health conditions. People are chained to tables by jail staff, endure filthy living conditions, and sometimes do not even receive clothing. The county has also failed to adequately staff its jails with mental health care providers; in February, 44 percent of jail mental health staff positions were vacant.

Severe conditions in the county’s jails provoked a visit from a panel appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in April and, in May, triggered protests by health care workers in the jails, who say that staffing shortages have left them unable to provide care to patients in these dangerously overcrowded facilities.

“We know that people who are here deserve humane conditions,” Katrina Thompson, a registered nurse, told CBS News. “They deserve health care . . . and they deserve to be safe when they are here.”

Who has died in county jails this year?

Los Angeles County does not report the names of the people who die in their custody, instead providing merely basic information such as the person’s age, date of death, whether they were held pretrial or were awaiting sentencing, and where they were detained. When the county does publish autopsy reports, organizers say it provides inconclusive information and, in some cases, misclassifies deaths.

Although we do not know the exact identity of every person who has died in custody this year, the data provided reveals important demographic information about them. Of the people who have died in Los Angeles County jails this year, 29 percent were Black, and 50 percent were identified by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department as “Hispanic.” The majority of those who have died—25 of the 42—were held pretrial, many because they could not afford bail.

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