Jail Rules USA: Beatings, Rapes and Immunity at the Top

The former Soviet republic of Georgia launched a revolution over prison abuse—why do we tolerate it in America?

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca waits before a news conference to address the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence ...

Prison abuse brought down the president of Georgia. Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca remains in charge. (Photo: Jason Redmond /Reuters)

Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

This past September 18, the former Soviet republic of Georgia collectively exploded in anger and took to the streets over the public airing of a series of leaked videos. The videos depicted horrific prisoner abuse inside a prison in the capital city of Tbilisi. Prison guards in Tbilisi’s Prison No. 8  appeared to be beating and sexually assaulting prisoners—sodomizing one repeatedly with a broom handle before moving on to the next, and the next, and the next...

The footage was provided by a prison guard whistleblower by the name of Vladimir Bedukadze. Bedukadze testified that similar abuse had been going on for years under the orders of Georgian Interior Minister Bacho Ahalaya.

Bedukadze has since fled to Belgium. The momentum from the protests he helped launch, however, did not slow until the country’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was swept from power two weeks after the videos first aired.

MORE: America’s Out-of-Control Jail Culture

That inmate abuse could be a cause for revolution seems an odd notion here in America. Brutal treatment of this country’s incarcerated population occurs which such frequency as to almost seem banal. In Los Angeles County, under the watch of Sheriff Lee Baca, abuse of inmates in the county jail system—of which the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has oversight—has been thoroughly documented for years by the ACLU and local media without a single hint of protest in the streets.

In some cases, like that of former Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail inmate Juan Pablo Reyes, the tales of abuse are virtually identical to those that took place in Georgia.

For nearly 10 hours, Reyes says, he was gang-raped while the guards ignored his cries for help. Medical records confirm much of Reyes’s injuries.

In 2011, Reyes says guards beat him so severely they fractured his orbital bone and broke his ribs. They then stripped him naked, paraded him in front of other inmates, announced “here comes a maricon [a derogatory term for gay man in Spanish] walking,” then threw him in a cell with three gang members. For nearly 10 hours, Reyes says, he was gang-raped while the guards ignored his cries for help. Medical records confirm much of Reyes’s injuries.

Stories like Reyes’s are not uncommon in the L.A. County Jail system. And, like Georgia, Los Angeles too has a whistleblower willing to speak out against the ills of the department.

Former L.A. Sheriff’s Department commander Robert Olmsted has publicly testified that he personally warned LASD higher-ups—including Baca and his second-in-command, Paul Tanaka—about a dangerous culture of deputy abuse of inmates. Not only did the executives Olmsted warn fail to take action, they as good as stood in the way of meaningful reform—despite the presence of multiple multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the department and no less than four damning internal reports on abuse.

More than a year after Olmsted came forward with his damning testimony, L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca is still in charge. Indeed, even after a blue-ribbon panel commissioned by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to investigate abuse in the jails determined that Baca and his top executives had allowed this abuse to go unfettered—in some cases intentionally standing in the way of meaningful reform—no executives have been punished for their role in aiding and abetting the abuse.

In Los Angeles, the media attention on Baca and the abuse scandal has been glaring. Local politicians and the county board of supervisors have vowed to take action. The ACLU has filed multiple lawsuits. The Department of Justice has even launched criminal investigations.

The groundswell of citizen outrage that shifted the tides of Georgian politics has yet to surface in Los Angeles. Until it does—until Americans in general start to realize that allowing the torture of inmates inside our prison and jail walls violates our constitution and demeans our moral standing as a nation—the abuse will continue. Lawsuit after lawsuit will follow. And no one—including citizens, crime victims, and law enforcement—will be better for it.

Is it important that the United States catches up with the rest of the developed world in prison reform? Leave whys and why nots in COMMENTS.

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