Apocalypse Hoosegow 4: Of Heroin Burritos and “Dings” at L.A.’s Men’s Central Jail

I’ve seen the mentally ill scurry from beatings under bunks, behind trashcans, and between walls and toilets. I’ve also witnessed Sheriff’s Deputies chasing these “Dings” down to hogtie ‘em and leave ‘em that way until their wrists and feet turned so purple I wanted to scream in anger. It’s all coming back now – but this time, finally, it’s coming back publically.

First of all, “Ding” is a jail term for prisoners suffering from obvious mental health issues. Jabbering crazy dudes are everywhere in jail, and most of ‘em like to hide – in corridors, showers, laundry areas, etc. They also jump out at you, yell at you, grab your food while you’re eating, and keep you up at all hours. So naturally, Dings get the shit beaten out of ‘em night and friggen’ day.

More than any other prisoners, Dings suffer vicious deprivations akin to those you see in movies; for the most part they live like starving, beaten dogs. In Sheriff Lee Baca’s custody, they’re little more than punching bags for amped-up jocks and tormenters on both sides of the bars. This week, though, Dings are sharing headlines with the “heroin burrito” as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors wonders why anyone whose erratic behavior can so easily be misinterpreted would be housed with the general population in facilities like Men’s Central Jail (MCJ).

To anyone who’s ever been in custody at MCJ, heroin burritos and yowling Dings are not just old news: their distress is one of the details most of us repeatedly try to forget. But Ding beatings are apparently new to some County Supervisors, who are just now learning about yet another component of the horrendous conditions inside L.A.’s jails from a behind-the-8-ball Sherriff’s Department.

Now why, you might wonder, would this be coming from the Department itself if Sheriff’s Deputies are part of the problem? Well, money, for one: Baca is suddenly – belatedly – requesting suitably trained staff in order to curtail the number of Ding-assaults by MCJ staff. And apparently his people must’ve decided that the “facts” here had better come from the Department’s own representatives before they’re exposed by the ACLU or the FBI, which is currently investigating everything from the usual rounds of excessive force allegations to destroying evidence and filing phony police reports, wrongful incarcerations, and now the smuggling of heroin burritos.

The Supervisors must be woozy at this point, having just watched taxpayers absorb the horror of the LA Weekly’s December 2011 cover story, “Wheelchair Hell in Men’s Central Jail,” and the recent news that more than $157,000 in surveillance camera technology long scheduled to be installed in MCJ has been sitting in boxes for over a year.

The first time I personally saw a Ding getting his ass kicked by more than one pair of Deputy boots I didn’t sleep for days, but then that might’ve been because I was housed on “the Freeway” in the 3000 Block. (Until you get used to that Hell, you just don’t close your eyes.) So I can only imagine how the Board of Supervisors – let alone activists, lawmakers, and the rest of the world – would react to a year’s worth of HD camera footage taken inside Men’s Central.

And still, it’s hard for me to believe that what’s always gone on that place is finally coming to light.

So as the Board of Supervisors grows ever more exasperated with the glacial pace of Sheriff Baca’s efforts to reign in his out-of-control Department, I’m guessing the last thing it wants to read is an L.A.S.D. request for additional funds that admits jail-assigned Deputies are more likely to use excessive force on the mentally ill.

Cops on the street frequently arrest the mentally ill and the homeless to give them a place to sleep and a decent meal; such “mercy bookings” are as old as Los Angeles itself. But most homeless people will tell you this is one favor they can do without – at least until the Sheriff’s Department finally installs those cameras.

Thanks to the FBI and Peter Eliasberg of the ACLU, more and more photographs are surfacing from inside MCJ, some from Housing Units where I was “lost” for several months, and others from cell modules where I witnessed instances of inhuman neglect and flat out torture. (Shout-out to the 9000 block ya’ll!)  Some of the pictures are hard to look at, though not just from bad memories. I’m in disbelief at their having been made public at all.

That the dumbest and cruelest secrets of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department are being exposed seems weird and almost difficult to accept.

This is a 9000 unit. It's a way station that inmates are sent to before they're given a cell module assignment. This room alone contains just about every reason you can possibly imagine for staying out of jail.