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MICHEL MARTIN: Now we go "Behind Closed Doors," as we often do on Mondays. That's where we talk about issues people usually keep hidden. And some of the most hidden places in this country are prisons, even though they are right in front of us. We're going to spend some time talking about issues around incarceration. In a few minutes, we are going to speak with a man who spent 44 years behind bars - mostly in the nation's largest maximum-security prison, the Louisiana Penitentiary at Angola.

It's been called the most dangerous prison in America. But somehow or another, Wilbert Rideau managed to become an award-winning journalist while there. We'll talk to him about that in a few minutes. And yes, he does talk about what landed him there to begin with.

But first, we want to talk about conditions inside the nation's largest jail, the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles. With nearly 4,000 inmates, overcrowding has been a problem. So has violence. The American Civil Liberties Union, which closely monitors the facility, says that conditions are so bad that the jail should be closed. ACLU executive director Anthony Romero has visited the Men's Central Jail. And he's with us now to share his experience. He's with us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

ANTHONY ROMERO: My pleasure, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you've visited jails in Mexico, New York, California - pretty much all over the country as well as some overseas.

ROMERO: Yes.

MARTIN: So why does this particular one stand out?

ROMERO: Well, I turned to one of my colleagues, who's in charge of our Prison Project at the ACLU, the only national litigation project focused on the conditions of confinement. And I asked her: Tell me the worst one in America. And she didn't even bat an eyelash. Within one minute, she said, the L.A. County Men's Jail, hands down. It's the largest jail in the country - some say the world.

We have access to it because, we sued the L.A. County Men's Jail, and so we have unfettered access to any part of the facility. And so I went for a walk-through several months ago. I spent about four hours there. And what I saw was horrifying. I have never seen conditions like this anywhere. There's no way to fix this jail. We've got to close it down.

MARTIN: It was built more than 40 years ago, and has what? Some - like 5,000 daily inmates, about 4,500?

ROMERO: Forty-five hundred, 5,000, I heard from my staff. The overcrowding is huge.

MARTIN: It's huge. But tell me why that matters?

ROMERO: Well, it matters because when you cram so many people into these jails, they become places that are completely barbaric. There are too many people. They're on top of each other. People with mental illnesses get sicker. The guards, in trying to control a burgeoning prison population, become more violent. And so it's a recipe to turn a bad jail into hell's jail.

MARTIN: And the food, you said, is particularly appalling.

ROMERO: When I was walking through the day I was there, it was in the sex offenders' ward, and I had some ample time talking with one fellow in particular. And since there's no cafeteria - because how could you possibly have a cafeteria to feed 5,000 men? -they have to eat in their cells. So that limits the amount of food you can give them. And so he would have a bologna sandwich every day. He handed me his baloney sandwich. I opened it up; the smell of it was just - I couldn't force myself to eat it. I didn't want to offend the fellow, but I don't think I offended him. In fact, I think I corroborated, in fact, what he was telling me.

ROMERO: And it's just the idea of having that, day in and day out, eating in your cell - windowless cells. Some of the guys get a shower once a week, if they're lucky. There are four, sometimes six guys crammed into these special wards, like the sex offender ward. In the general dorm - which is where they hold the general population - you have a room with 250 men, with bunk beds stacked three high. It is just unconscionable, this jail.

MARTIN: What about the whole business with the jumpsuits? Because some people might listen to that and say, what's so terrible about these color-coded jumpsuits? Clearly, the authorities need to understand who's considered a security risk; who has the potential for violence, and who doesn't.

ROMERO: Right, right.

MARTIN: So tell me what the problem is with these jumpsuits, and why you're so concerned about it.

ROMERO: Yeah, well, there's clearly a need to make sure you segregate different parts of the prison population. But there's no need for these jumpsuits. They clearly identify who's who. So I was walking in the infirmary one time, and I saw one fellow in a powder-blue jumpsuit. I walked up to him and I said, sir, what does your jumpsuit mean? What ward are you in?

He says, I'm gay. And I said, well, how do you feel about that jumpsuit? And he snickered and said, what, my pink triangle? But it's...

MARTIN: The pink triangle, for those who are not aware of that historical reference, that is during Nazi Germany, that different class prisoners were assigned different insignia. And people are familiar with the yellow star for Jewish people.

ROMERO: Right.

MARTIN: But the pink triangle was assigned to, you know, homosexuals. And so that's why he made that historical reference. But did you think it was intended to demean? It is intended to demean?

ROMERO: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it does demean. It's intended to identify, to target. And separate and apart from where you house them - which is an important part of any good prison facility or jail facility - you've got to be able to also allow the prisoners some modicum of security. And wearing a powder-blue jumpsuit when you're walking down the hallway is just an invitation for you to get harassed, beat up, attacked - either by guards or by the other prisoners.

The real thing to focus on, Michel, for me, is the violence. Oh, my God. There is such a culture of violence - prisoner-on-prisoner, sheriff-on-prisoner - that is just astonishing to me. I've never seen anything quite like this before.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. We're talking about the conditions inside the Los Angeles County Men's Jail. It is the largest jail in the country. And the ACLU says the conditions there are so poor, that the facility does need to be closed. I also want to mention that the ACLU of Southern California is the court-ordered monitor of conditions and medical care at all the Los Angeles County jail facilities, and has been for some time.

And that means that a staff member from the ACLU has carte blanche to visit the facility on an ongoing basis, and has been doing so for some time. You talked about the level of violence within the population, but you're saying it's also authorities sometimes engaging in this.

ROMERO: Oh, you bet.

MARTIN: Tell us about that.

ROMERO: The deputies and the sheriffs who are there - I'm sure there are some very good men who are trying to keep control and do it in a respectful, lawful way. They're not all bad. But there are so many bad apples, and the culture of looking the other way, and the code of silence, just makes that jail a place of violence for people, day to day.

What was astonishing to me is that one of our staff members, Esther Lim - a very energetic, courageous woman, whose job it is to walk into that jail and other jails as her full-time job - she was in the jail one day, and she saw right out of her eyes two guards beating a man who was lying on the ground. And even though he was completely immobilized, they subsequently Tasered him.

Now, usually, we don't get to see that violence directly. Usually, we hear it from prisoners, and then the sheriff's and the prosecutors' offices and the D.A. say, ah, those prisoners; they're making it up. And she's got this eyewitness account, that they cannot say that this is not someone who's trustworthy.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this, because I think that this might be a question that many people listening to our conversation will have, which is: If you're incarcerated, then presumably there's a reason.

ROMERO: Yeah. But there's...

MARTIN: And while that might be unfortunate, why should they care? So for someone who wants to know, why should I care, what's the answer?

ROMERO: Well, I mean, we have to understand that jails are different than prisons. Prisons are supposed to be places where we send people after they've been convicted. Jails are places where people are held until they're adjudicated guilty. There could be 80 to 90 percent of the people in this jail who are not even convicted. That's one of the problems. They're mixing convicts with people who are waiting adjudication. But the vast majority of the people are people who haven't been convicted. And I think most Americans, if they knew that, would be, oh, no. That's not right.

MARTIN: What difference has your monitoring made? Because I do want to point out, again, that the ACLU has sued this facility many times over the course of time. I mean, it's a 40-year-old facility and by my accounting, the first suit was 30 years ago.

ROMERO: Right.

MARTIN: So what difference has your oversight made?

ROMERO: Well, it's better, if you can believe it. At one point, some of the cells that house now four men, housed six or seven men. It's certainly been better in the terms of having greater scrutiny. We've got an expert witness who's there, looking at the mental disability issues. You know, change is incremental.

MARTIN: One of the things that we're hearing now is that - and partly because of budget problems - we're hearing more overcrowding in some places because officials are trying to close some facilities and consolidate their staff to save money. On the other hand, some people were saying, maybe we need to look at a different model altogether because this model is just too expensive, and it can never really be done right. So what do you think, in the long run?

ROMERO: Well, first off, this is our top organizational priority, where we've taken on in our recent initiative to end the mass incarceration of people in jails. It's precisely that, Michel - to use the budget crisis and the deficits everyone's worried about as an opportunity to bring people along. Even if they're not concerned about the rights of prisoners, they should be concerned about how much we're spending, and how many people we're locking up.

So I think there's an opportunity now, right now, to talk to the American public about alternatives to incarceration; that people with mental illnesses and mental disabilities, even if they commit a crime, they need public health efforts. People who are there on drug offenses, we need to completely understand that the way to fix the drug problem in America is not to incarcerate everybody, but it's a public health issue.

MARTIN: Anthony Romero is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU. And he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Mr. Romero, thanks so much for joining us once again.

ROMERO: It's my pleasure, Michel. Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: We thought it was important to get reaction from the authorities who run the jail, so we called L.A. County Sheriff's Department spokesman Steven Whitmore. Here's what he had to say about the ACLU's claim that overcrowding and excessive violence make the guards more prone to using violence, to control the population.

STEVEN WHITMORE: Our guards are not prone to resorting to violence to control the population. They're probably the best in the nation at what they're doing. But it's important to remember - and to note - that regrettably yes, from time to time, there is force used, and there's always going to be use-of-force reports that come from that. And don't forget the oversight of the Office of Independent Review. We have a particular civil rights attorney who actually works within Men Central Jail.

And we've had to close several floors because of a $128 million budget cut. In fact, we may be facing a bigger budget cut. The overcrowding still does exist. The ACLU is monitoring that. And as we move forward - and the jail staff and the ACLU who do meet regularly, there's going to be another entity in those meetings now, and that's going to be the Office of Independent Review.

MARTIN: And this is what Mr. Whitmore said about those light-blue jumpsuits worn by gay inmates. Mr. Romero claims that those jumpsuits make gay inmates readily identifiable and thus, vulnerable to attacks by other prisoners or guards.

WHITMORE: There is no violence on them by other prisoners. They are not easily identifiable because they do not mix within the general population. Yes, they do wear light-blue jumpsuits, but they are isolated in their own modules.

MARTIN: That, again, was Mr. Steven Whitmore. He is a spokesman for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. In a moment, we'll have another perspective about life behind bars, from a man who spent most of his adult life in prison and somehow went on to become a prize-winning journalist. Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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