Buzz Wilms Deep Dive Original

Letter from LA: To Rehabilitate Prisoners, Rehabilitate Jails

The author spent years on a commission designed to improve outcomes for LA Countys 17,000 prisoners but found roadblocks purposely placed in every direction.
In this May 19, 2004, file photo, inmates’ arms and hands are seen through barred doors on a cell block at Men’s Central Jail at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File, Pool)

By Wellford “Buzz” Wilms / Original to Scheerpost

When newly elected Sheriff Jim McDonnell appointed me to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Inmate Welfare Commission in 2015, I had no idea of what I was getting into. To be honest, I’d never heard of the commission, so I went to my computer to check it out. I was astonished to learn that it had $25 million to spend on inmates’ welfare annually ($35 million today). McDonnell knew of my research on the LAPD and of my interest in education that he hoped I would bring to the Inmate Welfare Commission. 

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is the largest in the United States serving the most populous county of more than 10 million people, covering more than 4,000 square miles. The department employs 18,000 men and women with a budget of more than $3 billion a year. It also has the nation’s largest jail system, usually housing about 17,000 inmates at any one time. (In April, about 5,000 inmates who were jailed only because they could not post bail were released due to COVID-19.) Sheriff’s deputies arrest more than 300,000 suspects each year and close to a third of them are jailed. Thirty-five percent of them are judged to be mentally ill. The custody division that oversees the jails is a gigantic bureaucracy with more than 5,500 employees to run its seven overcrowded jails. 

The commission to which I was appointed exists to make sure that the Los Angeles sheriff’s state-mandated Inmate Welfare Fund provides “services essential to the health, welfare and educational needs” of the inmates confined within the detention facilities. Now, five years later, I am convinced that this virtually invisible commission adds little of value. I’ve seen up close how a major elective office like county sheriff can be manipulated by unions and other special interest groups that have little to do with keeping citizens safe. Finally, it’s clear to me that putting people in jail on the scale that we do only removes them from sight, so we don’t have to deal with the problems that got them there in the first place. 

But back then, I was optimistic. I wanted to find out how I could contribute to the commission, so I decided to try to sort out the meaning behind the facts and figures by spending some time in the Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) southeast of the downtown. Men’s Central is a run-down behemoth with an unforgettable musty smell that holds about 5,000 inmates and is the first stop for each of the 100,000 prisoners—men and women—arrested each year for booking and assignment.

Dressed in a blue shirt and jeans, I stood out—a 75-year-old white professor being escorted by two burly armed deputies through the constant churn of bodies coming and going. About 80 percent were Black or Latinx. Handcuffed prisoners shuffled along the wall looking down at their feet. It was really oppressive, and I found myself wondering, what are these guys thinking? No talking was allowed, and they were not happy campers. As the prisoners passed by, I realized that without the guards, I’d be lost because I couldn’t see a way out of this labyrinth—no windows to tell me where I was, just endless hallways. It made me depressed. I could only imagine how these innumerable prisoners felt as they shuffled by.

We turned off to an alcove where there was a bank of elevators. One of the guards put a key in a lock and an elevator door opened. We got off the elevator on the notorious 3000 floor, where some of Los Angeles County’s most dangerous inmates are housed. It was like being in a cage, with long rows of cells whose bars are covered in chipped paint on one side and a walkway for people like me on the other. There was a red line on the floor a few feet away from the cells that you can’t cross because they don’t want visitors to come within reach of prisoners who might try to grab you. 

From time to time, I was told, they’ll “gas” someone who passes by throwing onto the guards or visitors something foul they mix up in their cells, like urine and feces. Occasionally they mix it with jelly left over from breakfast so that it sticks to your clothing. When one of the guards was describing this to me, I was thinking how angry and bored these inmates must be. I can’t say I’d feel much differently if our roles were reversed and I was in a cell and well-dressed visitors paraded in front of me peering in. The closest thing I can think of is being in a zoo.

It’s no wonder the jails are such violent places. It’s been going on for years. Lee Baca had been sheriff since 1998, but he was found guilty of obstructing justice and lying to the FBI, which was investigating civil rights violations at the county jail. He is now serving a three-year prison sentence. When I first met Baca in the early 1990s, he impressed me as a kind and gentle, monkish man, though as it turns out he had a much darker side. Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who bore the tattoo of a deputy gang that a federal judge called a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist” group, did Baca’s dirty work keeping the wraps on what went on in the jails where guards beat and tortured inmates. Tanaka is now serving a five-year prison sentence for conspiracy and obstructing an FBI investigation into jail abuses. As I got to know my way around the jails, I found out that gangs ran the place from the inside, ordering hits on enemies and running drugs and other contraband. It is not a place you’d want to land.

My escorts took me to other floors in Men’s Central Jail and after a while I was numbed by seeing with my own eyes how we treat prisoners. Nearly half of them were awaiting a trial— many of them too poor to post bail—or awaiting sentencing, and they were thrown in with the other half who have already been convicted of violent crimes, from molesting children and manslaughter, to rape. I asked one of the guards what hope there was for these men. Did he think they can be rehabilitated to become productive citizens? The guard was walking a couple of steps ahead of me and shrugged his shoulders as he kept walking. He said over his shoulder, “If they did stuff bad enough to land them in here, this is where they belong.” The guards dropped me off at the check-in place where I collected my phone, wallet and car keys.

As I walked out of the jail into the sunlight, the images of the day sink in: a huge and dark place where angry, frightened, and hopeless individuals sit waiting for whatever’s next. These jails are terribly overcrowded, often two or three to a cell, and violence is in the air. The guards’ “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality is what makes these jails such hopeless places. And we don’t have to deal with it because they’re all but out of sight.

I hoped the commission would offer a brighter side to what I’d already read and seen in the jail. At the first meeting of the Inmate Welfare Commission I wondered who the other 10 commissioners were and why they volunteered at least a half-day of their lives every month. It turns out six of us were new appointees—a former FBI agent, a pastor from Long Beach, a female lawyer, a retired corporate executive, a priest who runs a large gang reduction program, and me, a UCLA professor. As we talked, we realized that one way or another each of us were friends, or friends of friends, of Jim McDonnell, the new sheriff. A couple of others were reappointments, including another retired FBI agent, and the remainders were holdovers from Baca’s era. One of them had been an LASD commander who had run the jails under Baca, another was a retired bank executive, and the last was the president of a small college in Burbank. It was a genuine mixture of people. 

A few years earlier, in 2012, McDonnell had served as a member of the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence, and it was clearly a department out of control. Conditions called for someone who could reform the department from top to bottom and McDonnell was elected to do it. I’ve known McDonnell for 25 years, since he was a young LAPD community-policing lieutenant when I was doing a study of the department. As I got to know McDonnell, I was struck by the widespread respect and admiration that cops and community leaders held for him.

As McDonnell was promoted up through the ranks to become the LAPD’s first assistant chief, I’d never seen him use his power to bully others. He was tough when he needed to be, but he brought out the good in people around him. I respected McDonnell and, from 2008-2011, we co-taught a popular course on police and society—an experience that gave me deeper insight into his character. The UCLA students evaluated McDonnell highly, noting that he presented a “new face of law enforcement” and that he “would always make time for us.” We taught together until McDonnell became chief of the Long Beach Police Department before he decided to run for sheriff.

Once elected, McDonnell stepped into the mess and put together a new management team. He added more than 2,000 new deputies screened from thousands of applicants, introduced use-of-force and de-escalation training in the jails, established a human trafficking bureau to protect vulnerable young people, supported the first Civilian Oversight Commission, and provided public access to data on the use of force and deputy-involved shootings. 

Before I ever attended a meeting, I talked with a reporter friend who had covered the sheriff’s department and had heard of the Inmate Welfare Commission. The reporter shared rumors with me about how money intended for inmates was misused. This was not a good omen. Nor was the last thing the reporter told me, “You may be wasting your time because the commission is known as a rubber stamp.”

At first my reporter friend’s comments were discouraging, but the commission’s resources sounded like such an important opportunity and it offered me a way to support the sheriff, whose vision to reform the jails was sorely needed. It would prove to be one of the most inspiring times of my life while at the same it was also one of the most deeply frustrating and depressing. Let me explain.

Early commission meetings went something like this: We’d meet in a large conference room on the 2nd floor of the Twin Towers jail. Coffee, fruits, and sweets were on a table. At 10 AM the chairman, a former FBI agent (I’ll call him Harry), would call the meeting to order and the commissioners would introduce themselves, and then the visitors sitting in an outer ring (usually about 20 people, most of whom were employees of the department) would introduce themselves. It was pro-forma like they’d done this a thousand times before. The commission would go through an agenda with minutes, requests for funds, and reports. The older appointees would joke about this and that and talk about golf while we newbies at first observed. Voices were never raised, everyone was polite, and the meetings were incredibly boring. 

We would be given stacks of paperwork to approve purchases—everything from mattresses to television sets, to tattoo removal machines, to classroom teaching. Each proposed purchase was accompanied by a sign-off sheet with signatures of five to ten employees up the chain of command. We were the last stop before the sheriff. Not surprisingly the new appointees had questions on most purchases. What’s the demand, why was one vendor selected over another, what results do we expect to see in inmates’ behavior? 

At one of these early meetings I asked questions on a $296,857 item for laptop computers and charging carts. “Why do you have to keep asking questions?” the banker who had been on the commission for nearly 20 years asked angrily. “Can’t you see everybody has initialed it? Don’t you trust them?” My mouth dropped open with a “What?” I pressed the point, though: “What are we here for if the decisions have already been made? Are we just a rubber stamp?” Suddenly the old-timers woke up and vigorously defended the commission’s procedures. One said, “We’re here to see that the inmates get the best we can do for them.” I scratched my head at the mixed message, but it didn’t really matter because it was clear that the commission really exercised little authority. The power lay in the hands of the staff. 

Why do you have to keep asking questions? Can’t you see everybody has initialed it? Don’t you trust them?

Unnamed banker on the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Inmate Welfare Commission

Lunch was served in the executive dining room, something I attended only once because it was intolerably dull and a waste of time. The older commissioners liked the special treatment and they contented themselves with again talking about golf, the stock market, and department scuttlebutt. They were tone deaf to any new ideas. Meanwhile, most of the 3,700 prisoners here in the Twin Towers jail who were suffering from mental health problems whiled away their time in the jail in the floors overhead.

Gregory Sanders, a Black pastor from Long Beach, and I had many of the same impulses. We started to educate ourselves about the jails and to figure out how to use the commission’s huge budget in expanding education that would truly benefit the inmates. Sanders, along with another new commissioner and I, had informal lunches three or four times as we were getting the lay of the land. I was surprised, and a bit quizzical, when our chair Harry began inviting himself. What does he want, I wondered?

I was about to find out. Early on I began to try to interest the commission and the staff in moving our meetings around to the seven jails so we could see what goes on in them. Also, we’d get the chance to meet inmates and staff and “show the flag” from this all but invisible commission. Most of the commissioners had not been in the jails for years. 

The first time I bought up the idea, our staff person (I’ll call her Emily) said they’d already taken tours. She said we should discuss it at the next meeting but somehow any record of this discussion never made it into the minutes. At the next meeting I asked why, and I got some long-winded excuse. I asked that they be corrected. This was the beginning of the slow-walking that would become the way this calcified culture treated anything new, particularly from outsiders, something that might require some new effort out of the ordinary. And little did I know that the old guard was gunning for any of us newcomers with new ideas.

After my constant badgering we had our first meeting away from MCJ or Twin Towers at the Wayside Farm at the sprawling Pitchess Detention Center north of the city. Within the 2,600-acre complex are about 8,600 prisoners in a maximum-security jail, medium security, and prisoners waiting for parole. The Wayside Farm is a minimum-security jail (in the 1940s it was called the “Wayside Drunk Farm” because so many people were arrested for drunkenness), where a small number of hand-picked inmates work the 100 acres to produce food to sell to employees while they learn how to grow, harvest and sell grapes, fruits, hay, and seasonal vegetables. 

Farm crops at the detention facility.

You can’t help but be struck of this compelling example of what can be done to rehabilitate prisoners while they are in jail and get them ready to work when they’re released. Inmates talked with us about the joy they felt working in the outdoors doing something useful with their time and preparing for their eventual release. The custody staff members were similarly upbeat about their jobs. One female deputy who was a supervisor said, “I don’t think about this so much as a jail, though we’ve got that big supermax,” she said while pointing to the maximum security prison off in the distance. “Here I know that I’m helping to rehabilitate these prisoners so they can return to civilian life and succeed.” 

The nearby max security prison has no farm but is part of the same complex. From AP file photo: “Minister Bill Watford speaks with African-Amercan inmates Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006, about the recent clashes with Latinos at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. In response to the conflict, Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca invited clergy to the facility to help mediate problems.” (AP Photo/Ric Francis)

While we were at Wayside, the commissioners who stayed behind had a guided visit to some small vocational programs on the property. These were also minimum-security inmates who worked while they were being taught to repair electronic equipment, computers, and bicycles in small shops. As I chatted with an inmate in the bicycle repair shop he said he liked the routine of getting out of the dorms to learn something new that would help him when he was released. I asked what kept other inmates from making the same choice and he said threats from the gangs in the dorms discouraged many inmates from taking classes. I tucked his answer away.

A few months later the commission was invited to a special event at Pitchess called “Returning Hearts.”  It was sponsored by the sheriff’s education-based incarceration program (EBI) and a local Baptist church. It was a deeply moving event in which 23 inmates dressed in blue jail outfits who were enrolled in educational courses stood side by side on one side of a large plot of grassy lawn. Thirty-four children stood on the other. One by one as their names were called the parent and child (or in some cases multiple children) walked (or ran) toward each other and held one another in a deep embrace before retiring together for hot dogs. There was not a dry eye among us as we witnessed families being reunited, if only for a moment.

Later Pastor Sanders and I decided to spend some time sitting in classes, mainly at Twin Towers, to get a sense of what this classroom education looked like. We sat in computer, parenting, anger management and other classes and talked with the instructors and inmates at the end of each. The instructors, who worked under contract with a charter school, were unusual in that they chose to teach in the jails. And to a person, they were good at it. Inmates were engaged in discussions. One told us with tears in his eyes that a class to help inmates manage their anger was one of the best experiences of his life. “I never knew I had all of this rage in me,” he said. “I was like a time bomb and every time I blew up I’d do something stupid and wind up here again. I’ve got it now and I’m not coming back.”

I began researching how other jails try to rehabilitate their inmates. The most outstanding example I could find was Norway. Norwegians abolished the death penalty more than 100 years ago and today’s prisons are geared toward rehabilitating prisoners. At Norway’s Halden Prison, guards play sports with prisoners and mentor them. I recall a video I saw on BBC where the warden said, “We don’t want anger and violence in this place. We want calm and peaceful inmates. My job is to help the prisoners to become productive citizens so that they can live next door to me.”

When I discussed the Norwegian experience with the commission, pointing out that the Halden prison’s recidivism rate was 20 percent compared to 66 percent in the LA sheriff’s jails, the old commissioners all but rolled their eyes and the conversation went nowhere. 

My colleagues and I pressed the commission and the staff on the logic of spending 51 percent of our revenues on jail maintenance like lighting, door locks, air conditioning repair, and staff salaries, and the old guard pointed to existing legislation that they said couldn’t be changed. 

I looked more deeply into it and found that we charged inmates outrageous prices for telephone calls and for food from vending machines, with the profits going to the Inmate Welfare Fund. For instance, a bag of Cheetos cost the sheriff’s department $2.51 but they were sold to inmates for more than double the price, $5.33. There was talk that the Federal Communication Commission was going to force telephone rates down but so far nothing had happened. There was also a bill working its way through the California Legislature (SB 555) that would have corrected many of these wrongs. But it got stuck in the appropriations process because opponents said giving some of this money back to inmates would have put a burden on counties that had come to depend on it.

Slide from  2018-19 report by the LA County Office of the Inspector General. Prices charged to prisoners in the county jails. More recently, the office reports that tampons were now offered for free.

I wanted to find out what data we had on the impact of our educational programs. The Norwegian prison warden’s comments kept running through my mind, “We don’t want anger and violence in this place.” It seemed logical that inmates who were improving themselves through education would probably be more peaceful. At each monthly meeting we would be given a report on disturbances for each jail. In 2015 (the year I was appointed) there were a total of 30 disturbances. Each of the disturbances was written up showing the number of inmates and staff and any injuries. Most of them seemed to be racially motivated or gang related. It seemed to me a useful set of data from which one could make a quick judgment about the peacefulness of any one facility over time. I brought this up at a meeting, after which the reports vanished from our monthly packets. I asked why and was told by a captain assigned to us (I’ll call him Horace), “It’s not necessary that you have that information and if you were asked about it publicly it might get you into trouble.” I raised this with the commission but there was no interest from the old-timers, and I realized it wasn’t a fight that was worth getting into. 

Slide from  2018-19 report by the LA County Office of the Inspector General. Rates charged to prisoners in the county jails.

After months of discussion about tracking different aspects of inmates’ experience, it came down to this fact: Because inmates come and go from facility to facility, and in and out of jail, there is not a reliable way of tracking them. Each time an inmate is booked, he or she gets a unique booking number, but we were stonewalled on finding a way to link booking numbers. It was incredibly frustrating to have the staff trotting out reasons why we couldn’t do something because of other entities within the jails with which we would have to coordinate. Ideas like doing what most schools do, having teachers administer evaluations at the end of every class ran into the argument that then we’d have to deal with their union. So, the short answer is we didn’t have any way to capture the impact of the millions we were spending on educating inmates each year. We couldn’t even get an accurate count of the number of inmates who took courses because of double counting, with averages ranging from 3,000 to 9,000 each year.

Without a doubt, the only positive thing this commission did was to create a video for inmates about the educational opportunities that were available to them. In an initial meeting with a subcommittee headed by Gregory Sanders, our two staff people, “Emily” and “Horace,” challenged the idea. Emily said that if we advertised courses and the inmates couldn’t get them they might file complaints. Then she added that the ACLU might hear of these complaints and give the sheriff a hard time. Horace interjected saying that the department was “organizationally challenged,” it didn’t have any space for new educational programs, and producing such a video would be next to impossible. And, he continued, would this help or hurt the sheriff’s reelection? Horace barely knew the sheriff, so his question seemed to be out of place—just one more little obstacle he’d toss in our path. 

A few months later, after the drama had begun to subside, Sanders was searching the Web and was shocked to find the exact video we were planning to make. We were all astonished to discover that it had been made by the Hollywood Impact Studio in 2013. Sanders wrote the subcommittee, “This video is AWESOME … and with some MINOR adjustments, it’s ready for immediate use.” Sanders is a normally mild-mannered man, but the staff’s blatant stonewalling infuriated him. He wrote us, “What the Frankensense and Myrth is going on? What we want already exists. Why are they making us feel so defiant and rogue?” The truth was becoming clear that this staff had taken it upon themselves to obstruct anything this commission proposed doing while evading responsibility for doing it.

What the Frankensense and Myrth is going on? What we want already exists. Why are they making us feel so defiant and rogue?

Los Angeles Pastor Gregory Sanders

I wrote the chair asking him to bring the staff into line saying, “Please make it clear to the staff that we’ve had enough of their shucking and jiving that’s most recently played out around our last video. As our chair, I hope you’ll remind them that they work for us, not the other way around.” Little did I know, though I had suspicions, that my speaking candidly to the chair was going right into the ears of the staff members who were controlling us.

Sanders and I met the sheriff privately a few times to tell him what was going on with the commission. He was mostly in an upbeat mood. His leadership was bearing fruit: A Department of Justice investigation found there had been a “sea change” inside the jails with both complaints and use of force down. The Los Angeles Times reported that serious use of force in the jails are “almost nonexistent.” Not only are the jails safer, but the areas patrolled by L.A. sheriff’s [deputies] have seen a 16 percent drop in homicides. McDonnell also increased jail time for crimes committed with guns. Slowly but surely, the department had begun to reestablish trust with the community.

But within the department, or at least the part I knew, things weren’t working so well. I wanted to understand the educational programs and any performance measures we could come up with — enrollments, dropouts, graduation rates, and costs. Gregory was doggedly going after producing educational videos, especially for the women’s jail. But by 2017 the staff had become more brazen, probably from seeing that the new commissioners couldn’t do much by themselves, and they kept flipping us off. The sheriff listened carefully to what we had to say but in truth there wasn’t that much he could do.

 As much as McDonnell wanted the commission to become more productive, he was swamped with bigger demands on his time. Despite our huge budget, we were still small potatoes in the larger scheme of the department. Nevertheless, the sheriff responded quickly each time Gregory and I met with him about the obstacles we were running into from the obstinate staff members. Three times the sheriff added new supervisors over staff to keep them in line. But it turned out adding new levels of supervisors only created additional layers of bureaucracy that provided cover for the staff to subvert the will of the sheriff and the commission. 

Somehow Sanders mustered the will to stay with the video project and produced a compelling video that urged inmates to take advantage of the educational opportunities that were offered. It was still showing in the jails in late 2018. Sadly, Sanders’ video project was the only tangible thing the commission created before we resigned.

Mind you, through all of this we remained on friendly terms with our commission colleagues, and Harry kept showing up at our lunches and off-line meetings. But the duplicity of the old guard burst into plain view one day when the incoming chair, I’ll call him Howard, accidentally forwarded an email to all of us with a string of emails between the old guard members that were intended to be private. When the old guard wrote back and forth they thought they were writing Howard privately; in fact they were writing to all of us, calling us stooges with their plans to maintain control of the commission. 

With the intentions of the old guard clear, four of us newer members planned a way to take control of the commission. We carefully choreographed a strategy for the next meeting that depended on rounding up a fifth member who would vote with us. Our lawyer, I’ll call her Susan, extracted a promise from the banker to vote with us for a change of leadership. At the November 2018 meeting the takeover happened in a flash. Susan made the motion to make Sanders vice chair and then Sanders moved to make Susan the chair. In short order we had established the commission’s new leadership.

But it was the beginning of the end. Soon after being elected, McDonnell began to run into his own buzzsaw. He had taken steps to notify prosecutors of about 300 deputies who were not to be trusted as witnesses because of their histories of misconduct. These deputies had been identified as potential witnesses in more than 62,000 felony cases since the year 2000. As his initiative moved forward before McDonnell’s re-election in 2018, the powerful union that represents nearly 10,000 rank and file members piled on and sued to block McDonnell from releasing the names. An appeals court upheld the suit.

The union smelled blood in the water, and department insiders found a little-known retired lieutenant, Alex Villanueva, to run against McDonnell in the 2018 election. He had no management experience, but he was an insider, and despite the fact that the office of sheriff is nonpartisan, Villanueva advertised the fact that he was a registered Democrat. 

In this Sep. 17, 2020, file photo, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva comments on the investigation of the shooting of two deputies during a news conference at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Villanueva’s campaign tried to link McDonnell (who was registered as an Independent) to President Trump, a scare tactic that was completely bogus. 

Villanueva’s campaign attracted huge contributions, most of it from labor organizations. The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS), which counts about 8,200 members, contributed more than $1 million. Campaign workers knocked on doors, made phone calls, sent text messages and created social media videos on behalf of Villanueva. Villanueva touched a hot-button issue when he promised to remove immigration agents from the jails, for which he won the endorsement of the Los Angeles Democratic Party. 

Villanueva won the election over McDonnell by about 140,000 votes, a 5 percent margin. Votes by Latinos on the Eastside and Democrats in Mid City, the Westside and Santa Monica helped put Villanueva over the top to unseat a sitting sheriff for the first time in 100 years or more. Voters are typically ignorant about “down-ballot” candidates like judges and the county sheriff, so Villanueva’s victory was handed to him by his department’s union that helped him ride the “blue wave” into office with voters still pretty much in the dark about who he really was.

Dissident members of the Inmate Welfare Commission, including me, resigned once the new sheriff was elected. Jim McDonnell went into the private sector, and the commission has faded into invisibility from public view. I cannot find any reference to its current membership. I could find only one link, to a 2019 LA County Inspector General’s report. What a $35 million mystery!

Almost immediately, Villanueva ran into trouble as he started reversing campaign promises. During the campaign, Villanueva promised to “physically remove” uniformed ICE agents from the county jail system. After the election, Villanueva banned uniformed ICE agents from the jails, but he replaced them with private contractors, which is only a cosmetic difference. Though he promised openness and fairness, he reinstated a deputy who had been fired in 2016 by McDonnell for allegedly grabbing a female colleague by the neck and trying to break into her home, but his reinstatement was reversed by the county Board of Supervisors. Villanueva also has been trying to undo other progressive policies initiated by McDonnell. He established a “truth and reconciliation” process to consider reinstating up to 400 deputies and civilian employees fired by McDonnell for unreasonable use of force, lying to investigators, and domestic violence. But the Los Angeles Times described Villanueva’s truth commission as “a lie” charging that it is a secret internal operation accountable only to the sheriff. 

Today, nearly two years into his term, a growing number of Villanueva’s former supporters say they made a mistake in supporting him. Last August, the LA County Democratic Party issued a formal statement highly critical of the sheriff for what it referred to as “numerous complaints of abuse of his office” that has eroded public trust. 

Just last month the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors that controls the sheriff’s budget seemed to be having second thoughts as well, this time over the transparency of shootings by deputies that Villanueva ignored. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said that insuring independent investigations that the public trusts was essential to public confidence in the results. “Anything that seeks to remove the option for independent investigation,” said Ridley-Thomas “reeks of cover-up. This sheriff has to abide by the law.”

Anything that seeks to remove the option for independent investigation … reeks of cover-up. This sheriff has to abide by the law.

LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas

And what about the inmates whose welfare we are entrusted to protect? I have seen from my years on the Inmate Welfare Commission how other special interests come into play – power grabs, and bureaucratic stonewalling—stifling discussion that might set a new course for rehabilitating prisoners, not just locking them up and throwing away the key.

I have come to the conclusion that to hold this department accountable, the sheriff should no longer be chosen by direct election. Sheriffs in recent memory have served long terms that allowed them to consolidate their power, which is not always in the public interest. Consider that Eugene Biscailuz served 26 years, Peter Pitchess served 23 years, and Sherman Block served 16 years but died in office, and Lee Baca would have served longer than 16 years had he not gone to prison. 

Clearly the public interest would be better served by setting term limits on the sheriff. A maximum of two five-year terms would mirror the Los Angeles Police Department, a long enough time to make significant changes, if needed. It would require state legislation or a voter initiative at the ballot box to establish term limits.

I am also convinced that the sheriff should not be selected by direct election but rather be appointed through a two-step process. At the first step, a visible selection commission appointed by the county board of supervisors should be established comprising, for example, leading law enforcement officers, judges, elected officials and former jail inmates. The selection commission would present a short list of candidates to the board of supervisors, who would make the appointment and reappointment and hold the sheriff accountable. If a sheriff failed to meet standards set by the county board of supervisors, they would have the power to fire him or her. In this way, Los Angeles would get the benefit of involving representative bodies that are less susceptible to the power of special interests, and the process would be more visible to the public. 

I think back to my years on the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Inmate Welfare Commission and how such an arrangement could have brought some stability to the department and supported changes that needed to be made. Limited terms would have insured that sheriffs could not create cultures that were so deeply rooted that they would be impervious to change. And sheriffs who came in with fresh ideas would enjoy the stability to carry them out free of intimidation from those who would benefit from maintaining a culture in need of reform.

I imagine how such an organizational design could create an environment in which the Inmate Welfare Commission would entertain and implement fresh ideas on reforming prisons as places to rehabilitate inmates rather than operating simply to confine and punish them. To paraphrase the warden at Norway’s Halden Prison, we should work to enable as many prisoners as possible to become productive citizens, so that they can live next door to us.

Buzz Wilms
Buzz Wilms

Wellford W. (“Buzz”) Wilms is Emeritus Professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He is also co-founder of the Institute of Nonviolence in Los Angeles. His forthcoming book, Blind to Injustice: How 10 Years on the Streets with the LAPD and the People Helped me See. The book is based on his research on the conflict between the LAPD and the surrounding community and what can be done to repair it.

Copyright Buzz Wilms 2020

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