Los Angeles has a history that defies its place in the liberal imagination as a beacon of progressive politics in the West, driven by a set of unique, often bizarre actors and actions that have resulted in the largest jail system in the United States. About 17,000 people are held in Los Angeles County jails on any given day, often in terrible conditions. Many, if not most, are pretrial and therefore legally not guilty.
The state’s decades-long, brutal legacy of mass incarceration and state violence has left a legacy of profound multigenerational trauma throughout its communities. Perhaps the chief perpetrator of such harms is a lineage of sadistic law enforcement leaders including Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker (who called Black people “monkeys”), his protege Daryl Gates (known for his vicious of policing of communities of color), and the notorious tandem of Los Angeles County sheriffs Sherman Block, and Lee Baca, who in 2017 was convicted in federal court for overseeing a scheme designed to impede a federal investigation into corruption and civil rights abuses in the county jail system and lying to investigators.
Distilling the scope of harm to these prominent law enforcement figures may be reductive, but nonetheless helps illustrate the forces of aggressive policing and militarization that has defined policing in Los Angeles County for the last 60 years. Indeed, the abuse that the LAPD and the LA County Sheriff’s Office perpetrated in the streets turned into a national flashpoint with the 1991 Rodney King beating, trial, and subsequent rebellion.
Behind the walls of the largest jail system in America, however, brutality thrived and was normalized. Los Angeles County jails became accepted as an almost normal part of life. Those enduring the most suffering resorted to gallows humor and other forms of expression, namely hip-hop–like Ice-Cube’s “24 Wit’ An L” where he rapped that “LA is like a jail cell”–making the city a hotbed of culture in the era when incarceration boomed.
How can they allocate billions to the largest jail system in America when the benefits of mass incarceration have been proved to be nil?
But the California communities most impacted by mass incarceration have had enough, especially after years of disappointment from traditional allies like the Democratic Party and legacy civil rights organizations. They have begun to stand up to demand an end to the horrific and widespread incidents of abuse and murder at the hands of sheriff’s deputies in the Los Angeles County jail system. My older brother Monte was one of its victims: In late 1999, he was incarcerated pretrial at a county jail complex called Pitchess Detention Center, accused of taking our mother’s car for a joy ride. He told us that while he was held there, he was beaten by a group of four or five sheriff’s deputies. In 2012, I founded Dignity and Power Now, a grassroots organization fighting for the dignity and power of all incarcerated people, their families, and communities. One year later, fueled by the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, I co-founded Black Lives Matter.
Despite the county jail system’s long history of harm, in June 2018 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $2.2 billion dollar plan to replace the Men’s Central Jail. How can they allocate billions to the largest jail system in America when the benefits of mass incarceration have been proved to be nil? Los Angeles, for example, leads the nation in homelessness, and it’s impossible to ignore. The city’s acutely visible crisis of shelter should be a harsh wake-up call to the county that spending billions for a new jail is not only a bad fiscal move but a slap in the face to the communities that have suffered so greatly by the aforementioned legacy of abuse and family separation.
There is hope that the County Board of Supervisors may be changing course: On Jan. 8, it decided to reconsider a $215 million proposal to transform an out-of-use detention facility into the 1,600-bed Mira Loma Women’s Detention Center. Opposition to the jail was led by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl who said that “there is nowhere for the women to visit with their families or kids, there’s no special consideration for pregnant women, and it’s so far away that families can’t get there.”
It was the first time we heard the supervisors challenge the idea that incarceration comes first as a need for our communities. And it was the first time that many of us felt the impact of our organizing—a campaign that started in the early 2000s when the Board of Supervisors first proposed building new jails. Groups like Justice LA and our 40-plus group coalition have set the tone for Los Angeles about why we must divest from incarceration and invest in the dignity and health and wellness of our communities. We’ve met with local, statewide, and national leaders alike to express our commitment to justice even when we were told there was no turning back on building these jails. While the fight isn’t over, we are seeing the Board of Supervisors finally listen to those most marginalized and impacted by the incarceration machine that is Los Angeles County.
Patrisse Cullors is an artist, organizer and freedom fighting living and working in Los Angeles. She is Founder and Board President of Dignity and Power Now, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and consults multiple organizations on issues from criminal justice reform to maternal justice.
Lex Steppling is the Director of Campaigns and Policy for Dignity & Power Now. Lex has organized most of his life around issues pertaining to state violence from a criminal justice and public health lens. A native of Los Angeles, Lex is happy to be coming home after 7 years of organizing nationally to help push towards to future free from punitive punishment systems and towards a vision of healing and justice.