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Rights violations exposed in LA prison sting

US security forces arrested 18 Los Angles prison officials and analysts say the case sheds light on poor conditions.

Last updated: 19 Dec 2013 10:39
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Inmates in California went on a hunger strike earlier this year to protest what they consider poor conditions [Reuters]

The FBI's arrest of 18 current and former Los Angeles prison staff in a sting operation earlier this month casts light on alleged "brutality" and civil rights violations in some parts of the US judicial system, analysts have said.

Cases brought against the troubled LA Sheriff's department include allegations of assaults on inmates and visitors, writing false reports to cover up assaults, conspiracy to obstruct justice and lying to federal agents.

"We uncovered examples of civil rights violations that included excessive force and unlawful arrests," according to a press release from the US Attorney of Central District California. 

Beginning in 2011, statewide hunger strikes drew international attention to alleged civil rights abuses in the California state prison system. This recent scandal, some analysts say, has brought California's system of incarceration into focus once again, this time at the county level. 

"Advocacy organisations and individuals in LA County have been raising the alarm against and fighting against brutality and institutionalised racism in the jails for decades. None of this is new," Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author of Golden Gulag: Prison, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalising California, told Al Jazeera.

The two-year FBI jailhouse probe came in response to allegations of civil rights abuses and corruption by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD), which oversees a jail system with more than 18,000 inmates.

"Our investigation found that these incidents did not take place in a vacuum - in fact, they demonstrated behavior that had become institutionalised," US Attorney André Birotte Jr said earlier this month.

Dylan Rodriguez, Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California told Al Jazeera: "In the LA jails there are layers upon layers of institutionalised violence and racism that inmates encounter there… This FBI probe is a cross section, an infinitely small slice of the every day reality of the jail system."

Peter Eliasberg, director of the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has been monitoring the California jail system for decades told Al Jazeera: "There has been a documented substantial and longstanding problem with physical abuse of inmates, excessive force, unnecessary force against inmates, and the failure from department and higher ups to take steps necessary to prevent it."

Jailhouse Probe

Seven of the indited deputies were allegedly involved in what the FBI claims was a "broad conspiracy to obstruct justice".

This behavior is not widespread within the sheriffs department. Crime is at historic lows, and public trust within the sheriffs department is the highest it's been in decades

Steve Whitmore, LA Sheriffs Department spokesperson 

After learning that an inmate was an FBI informant, deputies "allegedly altered records to make it appear that the cooperator had been released. They then re-booked the inmate under a different name, and told the cooperator that he had been abandoned by the FBI."

LA Sheriffs Department spokesperson Steve Whitmore told Al Jazeera: "This behavior is not widespread within the sheriffs department. Crime is at historic lows, and public trust within the sheriffs department is the highest it's been in decades."

California has the dubious honor of holding the largest prisoner population in the US. This in a nation that itself holds nearly one quarter of global prisoner population.

From 1980-2006, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) experienced a 600 percent increase in its inmate population from 27, 916 to 161,000, while embarking on one of the largest prison-building projects in recent memory.

The factors behind the rise in incarceration throughout the US and California over the past 30-35 years are complex, but some analysts blame rising inequality, expanding criminal law and policy, statewide investment in prisons, and "moral panic" over the supposed mounting crime rate.

"In the US we don’t criminalise we hyper-criminalise... Numerous studies point that the fact that the chances of being arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced are much greater for people of color, particularly the black and latino population," Maria Beatriz Velez, professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico who teaches about the causes of crime and delinquency, told Al Jazeera. 

Incarceration rates have increased dramatically since the 1980's, even as crime in most of the US has declined over the same period.

"What happened with the FBI probe into the California jails [exposing civil rights violations] is mirrored by what happened probe after probe after probe into the California prison and jail system," Professor Gilmore said. "The problem lies in the fact that prison and jail has become a catch-all solution for social problems."

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Al Jazeera
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