Reporting on LA jails is tough, but piecing together information from many sources paints a damning portrait

Published on
June 13, 2023

In 2015, Los Angeles County created an Office of Diversion and Reentry to keep people with mental and physical health needs out of the county’s jails. But since then, the number of people with mental illness in Los Angeles County jails has skyrocketed.

Data from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) shows that from 2015 to 2022, the number of incarcerated people with mental illness increased by 54%, from about 3,700 to 5,700. 

During that same time, the total jail population decreased from roughly 17,000 to 13,800 — as a result, the share of people with mental illness in the jail system rose from about 22% to 41% in that time period. 

These figures, made publicly available by the LASD, are startling. But the data raise questions that require substantial reporting to answer. Why is the county incarcerating more people with mental illnesses, despite its diversion efforts? What sort of conditions are these thousands of people being held in? 

Reporting on prisons and jails is challenging, since it can be logistically difficult to communicate with incarcerated people and requests to visit facilities are not always granted. It was doubly challenging to get information for this story, since much of the information I tried to obtain was protected by HIPAA. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department denied my requests for information on the mental health population inside the jails, stating that they cannot disclose medical information. 

So I looked for other sources. Telling this story involved putting together a lot of different puzzle pieces. First, I found that Los Angeles County’s Department of Health Services tracks people with mental health needs in the county's jails and publishes a dataset on the county's open data portal. Their data includes the race, sex, age range, admittance date, location, and "level of care" of every member of the mental health population in the jail system. 

But the data did not contain any information explaining what the fields in the “level of care” category meant. The four levels of care were listed in the dataset as: P1: General population on psychotropic medication, P2: Moderate observation housing (MOH), P3: High observation housing (HOH), P4: Forensic in-patient (FIP) unit. 

To find out what these levels of care entailed, I read through instruction manuals and training materials from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. From there, I was able to identify what sort of mental state people in these levels of care are in, what their medical needs are, and where they are housed within the jails. 

With this information, I now knew how many people with mental illness were incarcerated in Los Angeles jails, what degree of mental illness those people were experiencing, what symptoms they displayed, and what care they were supposed to be getting. But I still didn't know what care (if any) they were actually receiving. I turned to PACER to dig through the years of court records generated from the Department of Justice (DOJ) case against Los Angeles County for answers. 

I found the final piece of the puzzle in federal court records: reports from a court-appointed monitor detailed shocking jail conditions. Motions filed by the county itself verified the crisis described by the monitor. The reports described the facilities as "deplorable,” overcrowded, and with cells "overflowing with garbage." In totality, the data I obtained, court records and LASD manuals together showed that Los Angeles County has abandoned its residents with serious mental illness. 

These records showed that the county is also chaining thousands of mentally ill people to tables for their “recreation time” and not providing them with therapy or group programming. Interviews with key sources and a review of hundreds of pages of court records showed that the county has not adequately invested in solutions to address the crisis. 

The Los Angeles County jail system is the largest in the country. It's been called a human rights disaster by advocates and jail staff alike, and has been under a DOJ settlement agreement since 2015, which mandates that the county address inadequate mental health care in the jails. But data and documents show that seven years after the DOJ agreement, the county still subjects people with mental illness to inhumane treatment. 

I found that a majority of incarcerated people with mental illness in Los Angeles County jails are people of color. The data also revealed the "level of care" incarcerated people are receiving. About 3,200 people sit in moderate observation housing (MOH), which has mesh screens on railings to prevent people from jumping. Another 1,200 people are in a higher tier, known as high-observation housing (HOH). Those people are considered unable to communicate and at persistent risk of self-harm. When federal monitors visited the jails in 2021, they “observed no therapeutic group programming being offered” to people in HOH. While more therapeutic programs are offered in the highest tier, known as the forensic inpatient (FIP) unit, the program can only serve around 200 people. At least 124 people sat on the unit’s waiting list. 

Worse, the Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) works — it’s gotten thousands of people out of jail. It’s just hamstrung by a lack of funding. Los Angeles County’s most recent adopted budget was $44.6 billion. ODR accounted for around half a percent of that. In comparison, the county gave nearly $3.6 billion to the sheriff’s department — almost 17 times the amount received by ODR. 

This series greatly benefitted from the skills and expertise shared during the program. In particular, learning how to use the programming language R to quickly sort large amounts of data, how to describe data to readers without bombarding them or losing their interest, and how to use data visualizations were all hugely helpful to this series. 

My takeaway from this process is not to be discouraged when the data you obtain seems mysterious or lacking in context. There are plenty of additional sources out there that will help make sense of your data.