A federal court found Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca liable late Thursday for neglecting to halt jail authorities from abusing an inmate. The decision comes amid a state-wide discussion on California's treatment of its prison population.
“I think (the jury’s decision) is very significant, because what it shows is that the sheriff – and not just deputies, but everyone all the way up to the top – can be held responsible for (their) conduct and the conduct of the people who work for (them),” said Mark Pachowicz, an attorney for Tyler Willis.
Willis filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Baca and several deputies in Oct. 2010, alleging the deputies had severely beat him while he was awaiting trial in 2009.
The jury’s decision called the behavior of Baca, a captain and three deputies in the events surrounding Willis' beating “malicious and oppressive,” Pachowicz said, quoting the ruling.
Baca may be asked to pay $100,000 of the total $165,000 in damages out of pocket for failing to stop the abuse, after having received report that deputies used heavy flashlights to control inmates, leaving them seriously injured, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times.
In the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail, where Willis was detained, there were 258 instances of “significant use of force events” in 2009, the year Willis was beaten, according to a probe by the California government-sponsored Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence (PDF), against 160 instances two years prior.
“I know that (today’s decision) will have an impact,” Pachowicz said, “I believe that a lot of the media attention that’s been focused on the Sheriff’s Department already through news agencies has caused some change.”
“Their work and the work of attorneys can really shine a spotlight in the otherwise fairly darkened halls of jails. I think that’s good,” Pachowicz added.
Thursday’s federal court decision comes after California prisoners ended a nearly two-month hunger strike in protest of the excessive use of solitary confinement – a demonstration that drew national attention to the civil rights of prisoners. California Sen. Loni Hancock and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, both Democrats, agreed to hold public hearings on prison isolation policies this fall.
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department was not immediately available for comment at time of publication.